By JOHN S. TOWNSEND
In the late 1970’s and early ‘80’s, following a spate of unusually severe incidents involving chemicals in transportation, “hazardous materials” (soon shortened to “HazMat”) became the hot button topic de jure. The result was the promulgation of numerous governmental regulations such as the Hazardous Waste Operations and Response Act or “Hazwoper” (CFR 1910-120), The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TASCA), among others. Each of these was promulgated by a different agency for different reasons and with the intent of achieving different objectives. As a result each agency defines “Hazardous Materials” differently. For example, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) defines a hazardous material as being any substance or chemical which is a “health hazard” or “physical hazard,” including: chemicals which are carcinogens, toxic agents, irritants, corrosives, sensitizers; agents which act on the hematopoietic system; agents which damage the lungs, skin, eyes, or mucous membranes; chemicals which are combustible, explosive, flammable, oxidizers, pyrophorics, unstable-reactive or water-reactive; and chemicals which in the course of normal handling, use, or storage may produce or release dusts, gases, fumes, vapors, mists or smoke which may have any of the previously mentioned characteristics.
U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) defines a “Hazardous Material” as any item or chemical which, when being transported or moved, is a risk to public safety or the environment, and is regulated as such under the: Hazardous Materials Regulations (49 CFR 100-180); International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code; Dangerous Goods Regulations of the International Air Transport Association; Technical Instructions of the International Civil Aviation Organization; U.S. Air Force Joint Manual, Preparing Hazardous Materials for Military Air Shipments.
The definition set forth by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) includes any substance or chemical which is a “health hazard” or “physical hazard,” including: chemicals which are carcinogens, toxic agents, irritants, corrosives, sensitizers; agents which act on the hematopoietic system; agents which damage the lungs, skin, eyes, or mucous membranes; chemicals which are combustible, explosive, flammable, oxidizers, pyrophorics, unstable-reactive or water-reactive; and chemicals which in the course of normal handling, use, or storage may produce or release dusts, gases, fumes, vapors, mists or smoke which may have any of the previously mentioned characteristics. (Full definitions can be found at 29 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 1910.1200.).
The Environmental protection Agency (EPA) incorporates the OSHA definition, and adds any item or chemical which can cause harm to people, plants, or animals when released by spilling, leaking, pumping, pouring, emitting, emptying, discharging, injecting, escaping, leaching, dumping or disposing into the environment. (40 CFR 355 contains a list of over 350 hazardous and extremely hazardous substances.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulates items or chemicals which are “special nuclear source” or by-product materials or radioactive substances. (See 10 CFR 20).
In short, a hazardous material is any item or agent (biological, chemical, physical) which has the potential to cause harm to humans, animals, or the environment, either by itself or through interaction with other factors and the generalized definition of a Hazardous Material offered by a student in “rookie school” that it is “anything that lays in its box and then jumps out and bites you on the back-side at the worst possible moment.”
Hazardous materials professionals are responsible for and properly qualified to manage such materials. This includes managing and/or advising other managers on such items at any point in their life-cycle, from process planning and development of new products; through manufacture, distribution and use; to disposal, cleanup and remediation.
Hazardous materials are defined and regulated in the Unites States primarily by laws and regulations administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Each has its own definition of a “hazardous material.”
This plethora of regulations has gone a long way to improve the safety of chemicals in transportation and during processing. The most important of these involved standardization. As the volume of chemicals being imported and finished products exported increased, it became increasingly important that the U.S. be in step with the rest of the world. The adoption of the UN numbering system was a major factor as was the introduction of the Emergency Response Guidebook, the well known “Yellow Book”, which is revised every four years and is now available on the internet free of charge. It may be (and often is) argued that the previously used STCC (Standard Transportation Commodity Code or “stick number”) is superior to the UN (NA) system but the advantages of worldwide standardization have resulted in the adoption of the UN system though the STCC is still in use by American railroads.
All this having been said, it must be remembered that the “law of unintended consequences” has not been repealed; there are still anomalies in the regulatory system that defy common logic.
For example, “ORM D” (Other Regulated Materials sub part D), is a provision that allows for commodities which would normally be classified as HazMats to be exempt from certain labeling requirements because they are packaged for consumer use. As a result one can go into a hardware store and purchase a lubricant product in an eight ounce spray can with almost no warning other than the notation that the product is flammable. Yet if one purchases the identical product in a one-gallon can it comes replete with warnings, a UN number and an NFPA Diamond on the container. Now, the material in these containers will burn or it won’t and the amount in the container is problematical. An eighteen wheeler loaded with eight ounce containers will burn just as quickly as will one loaded with gallon cans.
Still another example is ammonia (UN # 1005) which is shipped as a non flammable or corrosive gas (green placard) yet the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) provided by the manufacturer reports flammable limits as “LEL/UEL 16% to 25%”. These are listed in the NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards as 15% to 28%. This classification was promulgated to reduce the compliance requirements on the large quantities of anhydrous ammonia utilized as agricultural fertilizer. Now this material will burn or it won’t, regardless of what some regulator may think or political expediency dictate. If I am a first responder rolling up to an incident involving this material I need to know what will happen, not what some regulator wants to happen.
Another regulatory inconsistency involves mercury. Many of us can recall the draconian measures that were undertaken a few years ago to remove mercury from hospitals. We not only got rid of mercury-in-glass thermometers and sphygmomanometers containing mercury but in some instances all light switches containing mercury were changed out as were fluorescent lights in such places as newborn nurseries. Now, suddenly, we have discovered that fluorescent lamps, particularly the Compact Fluorescent Lamp or CFL is more efficient and, to force their adoption, our government has decreed that the production of the standard 100 watt tungsten light bulb will cease on Jan 1, 2013. It is worth noting that the breakage of one of these CFLs in an average room will put enough mercury into the atmosphere to exceed the EPA’s permissible level. A few years ago we were removing light switches because of the danger of mercury and now we are being forced to utilize mercury containing lamps; have the hazardous properties of mercury changed?
Another shortcoming in the current regulations has been the omission of transient properties from consideration. Asphalt is a good example. Until fairly recently this commodity was not listed as a Hazardous Material. After all, we drove over countless miles of asphalt roads with no problems. Why should this stuff be hazardous? In the solid state it isn’t but it is routinely transported as a very hot liquid and if you spill ten thousand gallons of the stuff you do have a problem. Only recently has this been recognized and there is now a category (99) and a placard for materials transported at elevated temperatures.
Many commodities can create a hazardous environment if released in large enough quantities. If you spill a tank truck load of molasses on a warm day you will soon have an environmental problem. The same would hold true for a load of produce such as squash or mushrooms or, for that matter, a load of fresh eggs. Yet, none of these are considered hazardous and more than once a response officer has been questioned by “higher authority” when he rolled a HazMat team in response to an incident involving one of these types of commodities since “they are not on the list of HazMats”. No regulation can supersede the “horse sense” of the man on the scene. If he errs on the side of caution so be it but most of us would rather call out an un-needed team than fail to call one that should have been. HazMat Response is far too serious a business to leave up to politicians, lawyers and regulatory nit-pickers.
In short, the rookie’s definition of a HazMat is perhaps closer to the mark than he realized when he said “(A HazMat) is “anything that lays in its box and then jumps out and bites you on the back-side at the worst possible moment.” This is the real world and regulations, necessary though they may be, will never replace the common sense approach of an experienced Incident Commander who has been significantly involved in an incident response and actually “squirted water in anger”. We cannot regulate the common sense that comes from experience but we can legislate against it.
We have become caught up in a culture of certificates. Almost any job has its hierarchy of certifications and if you don’t have all the proper letters after your name and the paper to back them up you don’t have anything. This has been a source of trouble on numerous occasions. A company employee who has worked with a particular chemical or other commodity for years should have the “street knowledge” that years of hands on experience normally brings and in which “text book learning” is often deficient. But, when he offers to be of service is this man’s knowledge accessed by those from “out of town” who have been called in to mitigate the incident or is he told to leave the scene because he does not hold a level xx certificate from the jurisdiction in charge? All too often it is not and sometimes this has led to a less than desirable out come. Never mind that this fellow in jeans and baseball cap just happens to be the one who knows where all the valves are located and how to operate them. He is the one who can tell you that the creek bed you are planning to use to collect runoff leads to the city water plant, but don’t even talk to him, he is not “certified”. More than one fire Chief or peace officer has learned this lesson the hard way and the knowledge has come at a very high price as many of us can testify. I’m sure that most, if not all, of us have been drilled in the “chain of command” and the various unified command systems (ICS etc) to the point of ad nausea but before we get too far up on our high horses consider the possibility that this stranger who says he knows how that unit operates and is trying to tell you how to turn off the flow of product just might be telling the truth. Give him a fair hearing albeit a quick one but don’t loose the war because he doesn’t have a piece of paper in his pocket.
In short, remember the biblical quote “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”. Regulations, certifications and jurisdictions were created to assist incident integration, not obstruct it. “Command responsibility confers command authority.” Any incident commander put in that position because “higher authority” thought he knew his business and could handle the job, if he has to will bend a few rules to protect the property and ensure the safety of the public so be it. Variances can be sorted out at the “after action” meeting. But let no one ever say that a response failed, an injury was sustained or a fatality happened because somebody had a death grip on some rulebook.