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Ready to Respond
OSHA is a vital member of the U.S. National Response Team,
which coordinates the government response
to hazardous substance releases into the environment.

by Alphonse Abadir

An oil tanker runs aground, spilling millions of gallons of fuel oil into a populated area. An explosion at a manufacturing plant sends deadly levels of toxic fumes spewing into the atmosphere. An earthquake ruptures chemical tanks, releasing pollutants into the air and groundwater system. A terrorist deliberately releases a toxic substance in a populated area.

National Response Team

A vital member of the U.S. National Response Team, OSHA stands ready to help respond to oil spills and chemical, radiological, and gas and hazardous liquid pipeline releases.

Who gets the call? The Environ-mental Protection Agency? The Federal Bureau of Investigation? The Federal Emergency Management Agency? The Occupational Safety and Health Administration?

OSHA? Many people don't realize that OSHA is a vital player on the National Response Team, the federal government's mechanism for responding to emergency releases of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants. As the Department of Labor representative on the team, OSHA joins 15 other federal agencies that share responsibility, interests, and expertise in various aspects of emergency response to pollutant release and cleanup.

Federal law requires the responsible party to report oil spills, gas and hazardous liquid pipeline releases, chemical releases, and radiological releases to the National Response Center, or NRC. The communications and coordination core of the National Response System, the NRC is staffed 24 hours a day to receive reports from around the country via a toll-free number, (800) 424-8802. The staff relays the reports to the appropriate federal coordinators at the scene and state emergency responders.

Ruth McCully, director of OSHA's Directorate of Science, Technology, and Medicine, and the Department of Labor representative on the National Response Team, said first responders who rush to the scene of an emergency to contain a release, as well as the recovery and cleanup personnel who follow, face a wide range of hazards. "These can include exposure to chemical, biological, and radiological hazards; skin contact with dangerous substances; and physical dangers from building cave-ins, improperly protected excavations, heavy machinery, and material handling hazards," she said.

National Response
In the event of a catastrophic emergency, McCully said OSHA's most valuable contribution would be to promptly identify and evaluate these and other hazards that could affect emergency workers' safety and health. For example, OSHA could be called to collect and analyze samples to determine chemical exposures to workers removing hazardous materials from the scene. In addition, OSHA would investigate all incidents in which a worker was killed or three or more workers hospitalized.

In an emergency, OSHA representatives in the 10 regions, the Caribbean, and Oceania (the Pacific Basin) would likely be called to address the safety and health needs in their areas. These representatives, who are assigned to regional response teams, would provide direct support to the onsite incident commander who oversees the entire response effort and is directly responsible for safety and health.

Providing a coordinated response in the event of an emergency requires extensive planning at the international, national, regional, and local levels. The National Response Team and its subcommittees meet regularly to address emergency preparedness and response policies, resources, training, coordination, technical and legal issues, and the safety and health of responders.

The team also co-chairs the International Joint Advisory Team in Canada and the International Joint Response Team in Mexico to help establish contingency plans for inland incidents along the U.S. borders. The regional response teams work directly with state and local governments to help them prepare, plan, and train for emergency response.

OSHA is a key player in two critical committees of the NRT: the Response Committee, which assesses the effectiveness of responses to hazardous materials releases; and the Preparedness Committee, which promotes continued enhancements to response capabilities at the national, regional, state, and local levels. OSHA assures that workers' safety and health are properly addressed in any response plan, procedure, guide, policy, or exercise.

OSHA is a valuable partner in developing critical interagency response and preparedness guidance and reports and identifying gaps, overlaps, and conflicts among response plans. In this role, the agency heightens awareness of the unique unsafe conditions that first responders and other workers must endure during emergencies and the required cleanup efforts. JSHQ

Abadir is a staff member in OSHA's Directorate of Science, Technology, and Medicine; the DOL alternate representative for the National Response Team; and the agency representative in the interagency preparedness and response committees.

A Real and a Test Case

Following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the
World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the National Response Team, including OSHA, took part in the government efforts to protect thousands of
government and private workers at both sites.

Following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the NRT, including OSHA, took part in the government efforts to protect thousands of government and private workers at both sites. The low rate of worker injuries at the World Trade Center is a tribute to how OSHA and other agencies can work together to respond to a real disaster.

Training for such a disaster dates back to May 2000, when OSHA helped assess the NRT's response to a mock emergency involving weapons of mass destruction during simultaneous exercises in Washington, D.C.; Portsmouth, N.H.; and Denver, Colo. The scenarios involved a nuclear weapon detonation in the National Capital Region, explosion of a van containing an unknown chemical agent in Portsmouth, and the release of an infectious biological agent in Denver. The exercises simulated rescue operations; criminal, environmental, safety and health investigations; and the coordination of cleanup efforts.

Afterward, each agency and the National Response Team as a whole evaluated the efforts. Team members proposed better ways to coordinate future responses, rescue efforts, hazard confinement, communications, and response procedures. Another congressionally mandated mock emergency exercise, TOPOFF II, involving weapons of mass destruction is planned for May. OSHA and other NRT members will participate.

It is impossible to predict when and where OSHA might be called upon to provide assistance, but McCully says, "When and if we are needed, we'll be ready to assist."

For more information about the National Response Team and emergency planning, visit the team's website at www.nrt.org.