Has saturation media coverage of the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion that killed 11 workers on April 20 and spawned the country’s worst peacetime environmental catastrophes served a wake-up call to private industry?

How many worksites beyond the oil and gas industries - from small chemical storage facilities to complex manufacturing operations - have reviewed and rehearsed their emergency response programs?

Opinions are mixed, according to environmental health and safety experts we contacted.

Some companies will always “get religion” following a publicized disaster. “A major incident certainly does ratchet up (hazmat) programs,” says safety consultant Tom Drake.

In fact, four large oil companies are committing $1 billion to set up a system to to deal with oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico.

Other operations remain complacent or in denial. “Reassessment of risk management work has to come from the top down,” writes industrial hygienist Aaron Chen in an email. “Each company looks at things in a very centrist perspective. Meaning? ‘Our company must have good risk management systems already in place, so no need to worry.’ It really does take a STRONG push from senior managers in any company to drive to strong risk management. Many companies have not been doing it well over the last 12-15 years.

“Personally, I don’t believe there will be major changes in most organizations. Most companies don’t believe they are vulnerable.”

Consultant Zack Mansdorf is guardedly optimistic: “I do think this will increase attention to spill response measures and also help with resources for EHS professionals as they can use the BP story to show what could happen. It will be good for at least a couple of years, but many will not be able to relate drilling at sea and land-based industrial operations.”

What OSHA says

At minimum, what should you be doing for emergency preparedness and response? OSHA has various safety and health standards to steer employers through emergencies. Two of import: Means of Egress, 1910.38, Emergency action plans; and 1910.120(q) of the Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response standard.

To learn more about OSHA’s requirements, go to www.osha.gov, click on the “A-Z topic index,” and click on emergency preparedness and response.

OSHA’s Means of Egress standard states: An employer must have an emergency action plan whenever an OSHA standard in this part requires one. Requirements include:

  • An emergency action plan must be in writing, kept in the workplace, and available to employees for review. However, an employer with 10 or fewer employees may communicate the plan orally to employees.
  • You must have and maintain an employee alarm system. The employee alarm system must use a distinctive signal for each purpose.
  • You must designate and train employees to assist in a safe and orderly evacuation of other employees.
  • You must review the emergency action plan with each employee covered by the plan when: 1) The plan is developed or the employee is assigned initially to a job; 2) The employee’s responsibilities under the plan change; and 3) The plan is changed.

Appendix C of the “Compliance Policy for Emergency Action Plans and Fire Prevention Plans” provides more detailed, non-mandatory guidance for the Means of Egress standard.

Excerpts from the policy: “The emergency action plan should address emergencies that the employer may reasonably expect in the workplace. Examples are: fire; toxic chemical releases; hurricanes; tornadoes; blizzards; floods; and others. The employer should list in detail the procedures to be taken by those employees who have been selected to remain behind to care for essential plant operations until their evacuation becomes absolutely necessary.

“It is the intent of this standard to assure that hazardous accumulations of combustible waste materials are controlled so that a fast developing fire, rapid spread of toxic smoke, or an explosion will not occur. This does not necessarily mean that each room has to be swept each day. Employers and employees should be aware of the hazardous properties of materials in their workplaces, and the degree of hazard each poses.


The Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Standard (HAZWOPER) 1910.120 applies to five distinct groups of employers and their employees. This includes any employees who are exposed or potentially exposed to hazardous substances - including hazardous waste - and who are engaged in one of the following operations:

  • Emergency response operations for releases of, or substantial threats of releases of, hazardous substances regardless of the location of the hazard;
  • Cleanup operations - required by a governmental body, whether federal, state, local, or other involving hazardous substances - that are conducted at uncontrolled hazardous waste sites;
  • Corrective actions involving cleanup operations at sites covered by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (RCRA) as amended (42 U.S.C. 6901 et seq.);
  • Voluntary cleanup operations at sites recognized by federal, state, local, or other governmental body as uncontrolled hazardous waste sites;
  • Operations involving hazardous wastes that are conducted at treatment, storage, and disposal facilities regulated by Title 40 Code of Federal Regulations Parts 264 and 265 pursuant to RCRA, or by agencies under agreement with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to implement RCRA regulations.

    Manufacturing facilities that have the potential for an emergency to occur due to an uncontrolled release of hazardous substances or hazardous raw materials are covered by 29 CFR 1910.120 paragraph(q), which addresses emergency response to hazardous substance releases without regard to location. Key provisions:
  • “An emergency response plan shall be developed and implemented to handle anticipated emergencies prior to the commencement of emergency response operations. The plan shall be in writing and available for inspection and copying by employees, their representatives and OSHA personnel. Employers who will evacuate their employees from the danger area when an emergency occurs, and who do not permit any of their employees to assist in handling the emergency, are exempt from the requirements of this paragraph if they provide an emergency action plan in accordance with 29 CFR 1910.38.”
  • Elements of an emergency response plan: pre-emergency planning and coordination with outside parties; personnel roles, lines of authority, training, and communication; emergency recognition and prevention; safe distances and places of refuge; site security and control; evacuation routes and procedures; decontamination; emergency medical treatment and first aid; emergency alerting and response procedures; critique of response and follow-up; PPE and emergency equipment.


Lessons learned?

What are the most important “take-aways” for safety and health pros from the BP debacle?

  • “GO SLOW! Take the time to do the hazard operability and failure analysis steps correctly and plan for the eventuality of unplanned events.” - ” Loss control specialist Steve Damsker
  • “Just because safety statistics for personnel safety are good, it does not mean safety of processes is. Any deviation from safe design, operation, maintenance and inspection can lead to catastrophe. An emphasis in these areas is the main lesson, and the shift to leading indicators from lagging indicators is extremely important.” - Consultant Tom Drake
  • “BP (and other oil companies) submitted emergency response plans to MMS that were, at least in hindsight, scandalously scanty and over-optimistic. Worse, the techies that prepared those documents (or at least signed them) drank their own Kool-Aid. They produced what were essentially false PR documents, and ended up believing them … and therefore under-preparing. Safety and health professionals should ask themselves whether their own organizations’ emergency response plans could be similarly contaminated with false PR influences that they have unwisely come to believe.

    “BP and Transocean ignored a lot of warning signs, and now a lot of people who survived the explosion say they were worried about those warning signs. So why weren’t they raising hell? Everyone aboard Deepwater Horizon had Stop Work Authority. The most damning thing we know about BP’s safety culture is that nobody blew the whistle. Safety and health professionals should ask themselves whether they would raise hell to stop something that looked like a disaster waiting to happen. And they should ask themselves what would happen if they missed it or were too cowed to blow the whistle: Would others at their operation raise hell anyway?” - Risk communications expert Dr. Peter M. Sandman
  • “Safety and health pros are not in positions to override decisions like the ones make on the Deepwater Horizon. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the safety and health pros were not even aware of the decisions being made on the rig. By the way, this is not a condemnation of the safety and health profession, it is just a fact of reality that safety and health pros are not and cannot be aware or even privy to all the decisions made by those in responsible charge.

    “The dirty little secret about ‘Whistleblower’ provisions in law is they do not work on the whole, even when there is anonymity. It is shear fantasy to believe that safety and health pros are going to rely on the ‘Whistleblower’ shield to protect their jobs. Sure, a whistleblower can sue and probably win a case of internal harassment for whistle blowing, but when someone decides to do it, they better be prepared to resign and good luck finding another job – Think Unintended Consequences.” - EHS consultant James E. Leemann

SIDEBAR 1: Your arsenal for hazmat emergencies

Errors in handling and storing hazardous materials can produce terrifying scenarios that can cause serious, sometimes fatal, health effects as well as environmental degradation. Quick decisions and action are paramount, but can be undermined by a lack of necessary response supplies, incorrect quantities, and improper locations. Here are equipment and services to employ from the second a spill occurs on your property through the response and final cleanup and decontamination:

MATERIAL SAFETY DATA SHEETS: OSHA’s hazard communication standard requires easy access to data sheets for all toxic substances at your site. These data sheets will guide much of your response efforts, from determining the initial level of health risk, the toxicity of the substance, protective clothing needs, and cleanup precautions (provided you know the nature of the spilled substance). MSDSs are often found in binders hanging from factory walls. More and more, though, data information is accessed online. Some MSDS provider services operate 24/7 emergency call centers to handle your questions. One enlists poison control specialists, physicians, and toxicologists to provide medical advice related to chemical exposures, including skin/eye contact, inhalation and ingestion.

It’s essential for you to know what liquids you’re dealing with in a hazmat incident in order to have the right spill cleanup gear on hand. Are you looking at potential spills of oils, coolants, and other water-based, non-corrosive liquids, or corrosive liquids, or a spill of unknown origin?

PERSONAL PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT: Consult your material data sheets for the spilled substance to choose appropriate PPE. If the substance is unknown, go with max protection. Consult OSHA, NIOSH and EPA websites for details.

EPA has designated four levels of protective ensembles for responders, depending on the toxicity of the spill, proximity to the spill, and job tasks.

For the BP Gulf of Mexico cleanup campaign, OSHA on its website has posted a matrix of job tasks and accompanying requirements for hard hats, respirators, clothing, gloves, boots, eyewear, hearing protectors and other gear.

SOCKS AND BOOMS, DIKES AND DRAINS: Contain the spill by blocking, channeling, or confining the substance. Speed is of the essence here to prevent the spill from contaminating your facility water sources. Spill kits should be placed near potential hazmat spill locations, such as loading docks, drum storage areas, dispensing stations and waste fluid collection stations.

PLUGS AND PATCHES: OK, you’ve stopped the flow of the spill. Now stop the source of the leak. Maybe you just need to turn a drum upright. You might have to plug or patch a cracked or torn drum.

CONTAINERS: After you’ve stopped the leak, you need to transfer liquids from the damaged container to a new one. Containers come in all sizes, from hand-held to ones hoisted on forklifts; some come on dollies or wheels. Spill kits can also be mounted on walls or carried in trucks.

Spill containment products also include spill absorbents, vermiculite, spill pallets, spill trays and spill sumps. A 95-gallon salvage drum spill kit will accommodate overpacking up to a 55-gallon drum, for example.

No OSHA regulation tells you what your spill kit must contain. Contents depend on your assessment of hazmat incident potential, hot zones, types of liquids, quantity of liquid and other factors. Consult hazmat spill cleanup vendors for advice.

ABSORBENTS: After confinement and containment comes cleanup. Spills are commonly absorbed using specially- designed pads, rolls and pillows. Remember: Unused absorbents are not hazardous. Once saturated with contaminants, they might be considered hazardous waste and should be disposed of following waste disposal laws.

EMERGENCY SHOWERS AND EYEWASH FOUNTAINS: As with spill cleanup kits, showers and eyewashes should be installed where workers who have been splashed or drenched by a spill can quickly wash down. Additional decontamination might be needed to clean eyes and skin.

DECONTAMINATION EQUIPMENT: Your response to a hazmat incident is not complete until the spill site, responding personnel, and equipment used in confinement, containment and cleanup are cleaned of the hazardous materials.

HAZMAT / HAZWOPER TRAINING: A wide assortment of DVDs, interactive online/CD-ROM format, and closedcaptioned versions for the hearing impaired is available from numerous training vendors to educate employees on basic awareness of hazmat concepts and definitions on up to function-specific needs. Topics covered include the hazardous materials table, shipping papers, marking, labeling, placarding, emergency response info, incident reporting, training requirements, loading and unloading, segregation of hazmat, terms and abbreviations.

One vendor markets an eight-part HAZWOPER training series for your 8-hour, 24-hour, or 40-hour training programs. This series includes the following training programs: Container Labeling, Controlling and Preventing Spills, the Decontamination Zone, Hazard Communication, Personal Protective Equipment, Respirators: General Awareness, Respirators: Air Purifying, Respirators: Atmosphere Supplying

At the other end of the hazmat spill spectrum, another vendor markets a DVD on small spills and leaks. Topics include supervisor notification, securing, cleanup/decon/ PPE. Web links are provided to organizations such as OSHA, FEMA, NSC and the CDC, where viewers can download and print information on regulatory standards

NOTE: Keep in mind what might constitute a nuisance spill to a large industrial facility could constitute a disaster to a small business. Know the limits of your response capabilities, and when to call for outside help (local fire departments, county hazmat teams, hazmat contractors, etc.).

SIDEBAR 2: Incidental spills vs. emergency spills

An incidental release is a release of a hazardous substance that does not pose a significant safety or health hazard to employees in the immediate vicinity or to the employee cleaning it up, nor does it have the potential to become an emergency within a short time frame.

Incidental releases are limited in quantity, exposure potential, or toxicity and present minor safety or health hazards to employees in the immediate work area or those assigned to clean them up. An incidental spill may be safely cleaned up by employees who are familiar with the hazards of the chemicals with which they are working.

The properties of hazardous substances, such as toxicity, volatility, flammability, explosiveness, corrosiveness, etc., as well as the particular circumstances of the release itself, such as quantity, confined space considerations, ventilation, etc., will have an impact on what employees can handle safely and what procedures should be followed, according to OSHA.

Plus, other factors may mitigate the hazards associated with a release and its remediation, such as the knowledge of the employee in the immediate work area, the response and personal protective equipment (PPE) at hand, and the preestablished standard operating procedures for responding to releases of hazardous substances, according to OSHA. There are some engineering control measures that will mitigate the release that employees can activate to assist them in controlling and stopping the release.

States OSHA: “These considerations (properties of the hazardous substance, the circumstances of the release, and the mitigating factors in the work area) combine to define the distinction between incidental releases and releases that require an emergency response. The distinction is facility-specific and is a function of the emergency response plan.”

SIDEBAR 3: Indicators of doom

In the 1990s Dr. Edwin Zebroski made a detailed analysis of four significant man-made tragedies (the Chernobyl nuclear reactor fire, the Piper Alpha oil rig fire, the first space shuttle explosion, the Bhopal gas release). Each was initially classified as an “accident.” However, his indepth research uncovered 11 common threads (human decisions) to each of these disasters. Here they are:

1. Diffuse responsibilities with rigid communication channels and large organizational distances between decision makers and the plant

2. Mindset that success is routine and neglect of severe risks that are present

3. Rule compliance that this is enough to ensure safety

4. Team player emphasis with dissent not allowed even for evident risk

5. Experience at other facilities not processed systematically for application of lessons learned

6. Lessons learned disregarded and neglect of precautions widely adopted elsewhere

7. Safety analysis and responses subordinate to other performance goals in operating priorities

8. Emergency procedures, plans, training and regular drills for severe events lacking

9. Design and operating procedures allowed to persist even though recognized as hazardous elsewhere

10. Project and risk management techniques available but not used

11. Organization with undefined responsibilities and authorities for recognizing and integrating safety matters