Occupational Safety and Health Administration OSHA

Radiation Emergency Preparedness and Response

Radiation Emergency Preparedness and Response - Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Defense
Radiation Emergency Preparedness and Response

General Businesses

Any worker or employer may be affected by a variety of emergency situations. Even though workers may not conduct emergency response operations—like rescue workers, law enforcement officers, or cleanup technicians—all employers and their workers should be prepared for emergency situations. This tab provides information for general businesses on how to protect workers and others at the worksite or facility during a radiation emergency. Please visit the Getting Started – General Business Preparedness page for additional information on planning, preparing, equipping, and training for emergencies.

Emergency response workers and employers should visit the Preparedness and Response pages for additional information.

On this page… for general businesses:

Basic Protective Actions

Employers should plan for and take practical steps to protect workers and themselves during and after a radiation emergency. Most importantly, employers and workers should always follow guidance and directions from local emergency response authorities.

Depending on the type of radiation-related incident, basic protective actions can be very different. The most likely types of potential radiation contamination events include laboratory spills or other accidents and leaking packages. Body fluids, such as urine, from individuals who have undergone procedures involving radiopharmaceuticals (radioactive drugs) may also contain radioactive materials. In each of these instances, the radiation hazard may be contained to a particular part of a facility, such as a contaminated laboratory or restroom, or small geographic location.

Regardless of the size of the emergency, workers and employers can reduce their exposure to radiation by:

  • Minimizing the amount of time spent near a source of radiation.
    • Example: Get away from a radioactive spill as quickly as possible. (Assuming there is time and the spill is a small quantity of low-activity material, avoid spreading any potential contamination when moving to another location.)
    • Example: Spend as little time as possible in exterior rooms of buildings if radioactive fallout from a nuclear detonation has contaminated the outside of the building. For every seven-fold increase in time after a nuclear detonation, for instance, there is a 10-fold decrease in radiation exposure rate (i.e., exposure divided by time).
  • Increasing the distance between yourself and the source of radiation.
    • Example: If emergency response authorities indicate it is safe to do so, go to an area farther away from where a radiation emergency occurred. In general, radiation intensity decreases rapidly with distance. In more technical terms, intensity is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source.
    • However, it is important to know the type of radiation emergency you are facing before increasing your distance. For example, after a nuclear detonation such as from an improvised nuclear device (IND), the areas with radioactive fallout (i.e., the dangerous fallout zone) may have higher radiation levels than places closer to the site of the detonation.
  • Increasing shielding between yourself and the source of radiation.
    • Appropriate shielding materials vary by the type of radiation. For instance, lead or concrete shielding may be best in some scenarios, but not in others.
    • Example: Keep all or as much of your body as possible on the opposite side of a cinder block wall (or other appropriate shielding) from a radiation source.

During small, localized radiation emergencies, moving workers and visitors to shelter in a different part of the facility or closing off part of the facility may achieve the goals of decreasing time, increasing distance, and increasing shielding between people and dangerous radioactive materials. Sheltering in place and evacuating are discussed in more detail below.

During more serious radiation emergencies, such as releases from nuclear facilities or nuclear detonations, the radiation hazard may come from outside. During these types of events, workers and employers who are not emergency responders should remember the following basic actions:

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

  • Get inside, away from sources of radiation exposure especially when airborne radioactive material or fallout from a nuclear detonation are the hazard of concern.
  • Stay inside.
  • Stay tuned to television, radio and social media sources, if possible, for updated instructions from emergency response officials. After nuclear detonations that produce damaging electromagnetic pulses, electronics and communication devices, including phones, computers, televisions, and radios, will become inoperable. Alternative communication methods may be necessary.

Training workers to know the "get inside, stay inside, stay tuned" slogan can help workers remember these protective actions even if communication devices are inoperable and without having to remember details about time, distance, and shielding (assuming the radiation source is not in the same room or building).

Although not all of these steps may be possible, moving to a location away from outside walls, preferably underground, may offer added protection from radiation contamination or nuclear fallout from a radiation emergency.

Knowing the type(s) of radiation against which shielding is meant to protect can help determine the type of shielding material. For example:

  • Alpha particles can be stopped by a sheet of paper.
  • Beta particles are better shielded with low-density materials, including water and plastic.
  • Heavier materials such as lead and concrete are common shielding materials for x-ray and gamma radiation.

What types of radiation emergencies should workplaces prepare to handle?

OSHA encourages workers and employers to be ready to act in the event of all types of emergencies, including incidents involving radiation hazards. Use tips from this webpage and other resources provided here to develop an all-hazards emergency plan. Having a plan will help ensure workers’ health and safety regardless of what may occur at or near a worksite. Employers whose worksites are in the emergency preparedness zone of a nuclear power plant should be familiar with preparedness and response procedures established by the nuclear power plant operator and state and local authorities.

However, employers must select appropriate shielding materials, as it can be more harmful to workers to use the wrong shielding for a particular kind of radiation. For example, lead, which is ordinarily used to shield against x-ray or gamma radiation, can result in secondary radiation (i.e., additional radiation resulting from the energy's interaction with the shielding material) if used to shield against beta particles. In some cases, secondary radiation may be more harmful than if no shielding were present at all.

Where radioactive particles are of concern, workers and employers in areas affected by a radiological release, nuclear detonation, or other radiation emergency should:

  • Stay away from any obvious plume or dust cloud
  • Go inside a building with closed doors and windows quickly.
  • Set building ventilation systems to recirculate air and avoid drawing in outside air that may contain radioactive material, or, if possible, turn off the systems.
  • If outside or in a building with potentially contaminated air, cover the mouth and nose with a tissue, filter, or damp cloth to avoid inhaling or ingesting the radioactive material. If respiratory protection suitable for radioactive air contaminants is not available, avoid contact with other individuals until after decontamination of both (or all) parties.
  • Carefully remove contaminated clothes as soon as possible.
    • Avoid agitating or shaking out clothing to prevent exposure or further contamination.
    • Place contaminated clothing in a sealed container such as a plastic bag.
    • Store the bagged clothing in an area away from people and animals. The clothing could be used later to estimate a person’s dose.
  • Gently wash skin and hair to remove possible contamination, making sure that no radioactive material enters the mouth or transfers to areas of the face where it could be easily moved to the mouth and ingested.
  • Provide first-aid or facilitate medical care for ill and injured individuals, when possible.
  • Avoid eating, drinking, or smoking, especially until skin (including the hands and face) is decontaminated.

Ionizing radiation may not be the only hazard of concern during and after a radiation emergency. Other hazards to which workers may be exposed include:

  • Hazardous substances, including releases of chemical and biological agents resulting from the initial explosion, subsequent structural damage/collapse, fires, and mismanagement of waste and debris.
  • Heavy equipment and vehicular traffic, such as trucks, bulldozers, cranes, fork trucks, and other equipment that will be needed to clear roads and move rubble to enable rescue operations and to control fires.
  • Hazardous energy, including electrical, mechanical, hydraulic, pneumatic, chemical, thermal, or other energy that may be hazardous if it is unexpectedly released or discharged, or if worker contact occurs.
  • Slips, trips, and falls on uneven, unstable, weakened, broken, or collapsing/collapsed walking and working surfaces and falls from heights.
  • Fires and explosions, resulting from a nuclear blast and or secondary ignition of fuel sources such as damaged containers, pipes, or utility lines.
  • Noise exposure, including from a nuclear blast, heavy equipment, and other sources.

Assuming that communication networks (e.g., television, radio, internet, and telephones) are operational following a radiation emergency, local news sources may be able to provide information about:

  • Additional protective measures for specific hazards.
  • Instructions for evacuation and/or seeking shelter (sheltering in place), as described below.
  • When it is safe to leave a building or return to worksites and homes.
  • Safe sources of water and food.
  • Safety of transportation networks and other critical infrastructure or services.
  • How children will be cared for if they are separated from their parents.
Sheltering in Place and Evacuating

The 7-10 Rule of Radioactive Decay

A basic rule for easily predicting approximate future exposure rates is called the "7-10 Rule of Thumb." This rule, based on exposure rates determined by survey instruments, states that for every seven-fold increase in time after detonation of a nuclear device, there is a 10-fold decrease in the radiation exposure rate. For example, if the radiation dose rate at one hour after the explosion is taken as a reference point, then at seven hours after the explosion the dose rate will have decreased to one-tenth; at 7x7 = 49 hours (roughly 2 days) it will be one-hundredth; and at 7x7x7 = 343 hours (roughly 2 weeks) the dose rate will be one-thousandth of that at one hour after the burst. Another aspect of the rule is that at the end of 1 week (7 days), the radiation dose rate will be about one tenth of the value after 1 day. Of course, for accuracy and reliability, nothing can replace direct instrument readings.

Adapted from "Health and Safety Planning Guide for Planners, Safety Officers and Supervisors for Protecting First Responders Following A Nuclear Detonation" (Interagency document, 2016).

In the event of a radiation emergency, two key actions can help protect workers and others in a place of business: taking shelter (i.e., sheltering in place) and evacuating to safety. Employers should plan for both possibilities. It is critical to communicate with workers about, and regularly practice, both types of plans (i.e., conduct shelter-in-place drills and evacuation exercises) to ensure that all workers understand their roles and responsibilities during an emergency. It is also useful to evaluate drills and exercises and to use findings (often called "lessons learned") to improve future performance and response capabilities.

OSHA strongly recommends following shelter and evacuation guidance from local emergency response authorities, which may be available from television, radio, or Internet sources. If specifically told by local emergency response authorities to evacuate or seek medical treatment, do so immediately.

Protection offered by buildings

Electromagnetic Radiation Frequency Range

Decisions about whether to shelter in place or evacuate depend on, among other factors, what type of radiation emergency has occurred. In the hours to days after a nuclear detonation, for example, sheltering in place can prevent workers, employers, and visitors in businesses from being exposed to dangerous radioactive fallout in the air. In the figure below, the darker-colored rooms in the center or underground parts of a structure may offer greater protection from radioactive fallout than the rooms closer to the exterior, which are shaded with lighter colors. Underground areas in the interior of the building are likely to offer the best protection.

When no guidance is available about whether to shelter in place or evacuate—for instance, when communication networks are overwhelmed, degraded, or destroyed—workers and employers may have to assess the situation and decide on their own what to do. OSHA’s Getting Started – Evacuation and Shelter-in-Place page provides additional information that may help workers and employers anticipate and prepare for such decisions.

OSHA's Evacuation Plans and Procedures eTool is an informative resource for employers and workers about evacuation and shelter-in-place plans. The eTool can be applied to radiation emergencies, and can help you to identify exit routes and shelter locations, account for workers and visitors, and get assistance in developing or improving your evacuation, shelter in place and other emergency plans.

For further information on sheltering in place, visit OSHA's Getting Started – Evacuation and Sheltering in Place page and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Ready.gov shelter guide. The FEMA Preparedness Planning for Your Business site also provides other general preparedness tips for your business.

Personal Protective Equipment

In most types of workplaces affected by radiation emergencies, employers and workers will not be emergency responders. Thus, personal protective equipment (PPE) is not likely to be part of a protection program, at least not for radiation hazards. Instead, employers and workers should follow shelter and evacuation guidance from local emergency response authorities, as discussed in the Sheltering in Place and Evacuating section, above. In the event of a radiation emergency, guidance may be available from television, radio, or internet sources. If specifically told by local emergency response authorities to evacuate or seek medical treatment, do so immediately.

Some businesses may require designated, trained workers to remain behind briefly to ensure an orderly shutdown during an emergency. These workers would, for example, operate fire extinguishers or shut down gas, electrical, and other systems or special equipment that could be damaged or create additional hazards to emergency responders (such as releasing hazardous materials) if left operating. Employers who have workers who are engaged in emergency response operations as part of their job duties may be required to comply with OSHA's Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) standard (29 CFR 1910.120(q) – Emergency response program to hazardous substance releases) when workers are expected to perform shut down processes. The HAZWOPER standard, along with OSHA's PPE standards (29 CFR 1910 Subpart I), require PPE for these workers.

The following are some of the important steps employers need to take with respect to PPE:

  • Conduct a hazard assessment to determine what safety and health hazards workers may encounter.
  • Follow the hierarchy of controls, including using engineering, work practice, and administrative controls before relying on PPE to protect workers.
  • Determine what PPE workers need.
  • Provide the proper PPE to workers.
  • Train workers in the proper use of PPE, including how to put it on and take it off correctly, and how to clean, maintain, and dispose of it after or between uses.
  • Ensure that PPE is used properly and whenever necessary.
  • Provide medical exams and/or fit testing, as required by OSHA standards, prior to using certain types of PPE (e.g., respirators).
  • Regularly review and update the PPE program as hazards change.

Escape Respirators

Employers should evaluate recommendations for supplying emergency escape respirators and masks to workers. This evaluation should include the risk of a radiation emergency affecting their worksite and in–place shelters. Employers will need to comply with all applicable provisions of OSHA standards covering PPE, including written program, training, and recordkeeping requirements. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)/National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Certified Equipment List includes some respirators approved for use during chemical/biological/radiological/nuclear (CBRN) emergencies.

For details about employer responsibilities related to PPE, including requirements for certain types of PPE during emergencies, see OSHA's Getting Started – Evacuation & Shelter-in-Place, Getting Started – PPE for Emergency Response and Recovery Workers, HAZWOPER Safety and Health Topics, and Personal Protective Equipment Safety and Health Topics pages.

Employers should keep in mind that PPE will not protect workers against direct, external radiation exposure, such as from gamma rays or X-rays.

Training

Although OSHA's HAZWOPER standard (29 CFR 1910.120) may not apply to workers who do not have emergency response roles, other OSHA standards, such as Emergency Action Plans (29 CFR 1910.38), may contain applicable training requirements. It is important for employers to:

  • Train workers in advance of an emergency and clarify worker roles and responsibilities for emergency situations, including when workers are sheltering in place or evacuating.
  • Regularly review and reinforce knowledge of procedures, facilities, systems, and equipment.
  • Establish and maintain clear procedures for organizational coordination and communications.
  • Practice and analyze emergency procedures to identify weaknesses and resource gaps.
  • Evaluate policies, plans, and procedures and the knowledge and skills of team members.
  • Comply with applicable federal, state, and local laws, codes, and regulations.
Applicable OSHA Standards

For most businesses, OSHA's requirements for emergency planning are the most important standards to consider with respect to preparing for a radiation emergency. Whenever an OSHA standard requires that employers have an emergency action plan (EAP), employers must establish those plans in accordance with the EAP standards (29 CFR 1910.38 in general industry, 29 CFR 1926.35 in construction, 29 CFR 1917.30 in marine terminals, and 29 CFR 1918.100 in longshoring). That is, the EAP standards are triggered if an OSHA standard has EAP requirements or requires employers to comply with the EAP standard. Construction employers subject to the Employee Emergency Actions Plans standard (29 CFR 1926.35) (including at multi-employer worksites) are required to establish a plan for the types of evacuation to be used in an emergency. Developing EAPs, including those required by OSHA standards, can help ensure a workplace has safe procedures for evacuation and sheltering in place.

For most businesses, OSHA's Ionizing Radiation standards apply to ionizing radiation exposures associated with the tasks workers perform or the environments in which they work. The Ionizing Radiation standards may apply to small-scale emergencies in businesses. However, employers and workers who are not emergency responders likely would not need to follow OSHA's Ionizing Radiation standards when radiation hazards arise from emergencies outside of the business' control—including the catastrophic scenarios that this webpage describes.

OSHA's Ionizing Radiation standards protect workers in:

The construction standard for ionizing radiation (29 CFR 1926.53) incorporates by reference the provisions of the general industry standard (29 CFR 1910.1096), in addition to requiring a competent person to perform activities involving the use of radioactive materials or x-rays (see 29 CFR 1926.53(b)). While some shipyard employment operations are covered by OSHA's Uses of Fissionable Material in Ship Repairing and Shipbuilding standard (29 CFR 1915.57), the general industry standard for ionizing radiation (29 CFR 1910.1096) also applies across the maritime sector to activities on vessels and on shore, including in shipyard employment, marine terminals (see 29 CFR 1917.1(a)(2)(vii)), and longshoring (see 29 CFR 1918.1(b)(5)).

As discussed in the Personal Protective Equipment section, some businesses may require designated workers to remain behind briefly during an evacuation. Employers may be required to comply with OSHA's HAZWOPER standards (29 CFR 1910.120 in general industry and, to the extent it applies, shipyard employment and 29 CFR 1926.65 in construction) when workers are expected to perform shut down processes. If workers require PPE for these activities, PPE requirements in OSHA's HAZWOPER and PPE (29 CFR 1910 Subpart I in general industry, 29 CFR 1926 Subpart E in construction, 29 CFR 1915 Subpart I in shipyard employment, 29 CFR 1917 Subpart E in marine terminals, and 29 CFR 1918 Subpart J in longshoring) standards also may apply. Note that OSHA's requirements in the maritime sector incorporate by reference the provisions of specific PPE standards for general industry, including the Respiratory Protection standard (29 CFR 1910.134); see 29 CFR 1915.154 in shipyard employment, 29 CFR 1917.1(a)(2)(x) in marine terminals, and 29 CFR 1918.1(b)(8) in longshoring.

Under the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970, employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthful workplace. Employers should also be familiar with other OSHA requirements that may apply to their workers, including the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act, which requires employers to keep their workplace free of serious recognized hazards. The OSHA Resources page provides a list of standards that may apply during a radiation emergency.

Regulating Radiation Exposure: Federal and State Jurisdiction

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) enforce standards for facilities regulated by those agencies, including licensed operators of nuclear reactors at fixed facilities (e.g., power plants, research facilities). Under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended, the NRC controls commercial use of most types of radioactive materials in the U.S.

The NRC, under its authority from the Atomic Energy Act, also permits a state to reach an agreement allowing that state to regulate the use of NRC-licensed radioactive materials within its borders. Many, but not all, states are now NRC agreement states and assume most of the regulatory responsibilities that the NRC would otherwise have within the state. However, agreement states generally do not regulate nuclear power plants, large quantities of certain nuclear materials, and storage of high-level radioactive waste. NRC maintains "exclusive Federal jurisdiction" over protected areas of nuclear reactors, as well as most American Indian reservations, and certain areas of military bases. Typically, agreement states regulate the sources of radiation that the NRC does not. Regulation of naturally-occurring radioactive materials (such as radium and radon) within a state's borders and radiation-producing machines, such as X-ray machines (both medical and industrial) and particle accelerators, as well as the radioisotopes (such as cobalt-57) that they produce, generally falls under state authority. However, OSHA sometimes regulates these radiation sources, including in cases when NRC does not and when a particular state is not an NRC agreement state.

While OSHA's dose limits are not increased or waived during emergencies, DOE allows higher dose limits for emergency exposure situations for worksites where its standards apply. For more information, see the DOE Occupational Radiation Protection standards (10 CFR Part 835 Subpart N).

Some states may also limit worker exposure to radiation differently than OSHA, NRC, or DOE. For instance, some states do not permit exposure of up to 3 rem in a single quarter like OSHA allows under certain conditions (see the OSHA Standards and Required Plans section of the Preparedness page for more information). Unlike OSHA, some states, DOE, and NRC also have cumulative annual dose limits. The Additional Resources page includes links to state radiation emergency resources. Employers in OSHA State Plans should also be familiar with state standards applicable in their state.

The NRC and NRC agreement states limit whole-body effective radiation dose for members of the general public resulting from licensed nuclear operations to 100 mrem (0.1 rem) per year (see 10 CFR Subpart D 20.1301). This dose excludes background radiation (e.g., radiation from natural sources like radon) and medical imaging (e.g., x-rays and computed tomography scans) and is well below doses that would be expected to produce health effects.

During an actual radiation emergency, there may be potential for exposure to radiation doses higher than OSHA's occupational exposure limit for ionizing radiation or NRC's dose limit for the general public.
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