Worker Protection: OSHA's Role During Response to Catastrophic Incidents Guide


The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) requires employers to comply with hazard-specific safety and health standards. In addition, pursuant to Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act, employers must provide their employees with a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm. Emergency Preparedness Guides do not and cannot enlarge or diminish an employer's obligations under the OSH Act.

Emergency Preparedness Guides are based on presently available information, as well as current occupational safety and health provisions and standards. The procedures and practices discussed in Emergency Preparedness Guides may need to be modified when additional, relevant information becomes available or when OSH Act standards are promulgated or modified.


The Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act was passed to "assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women." Accordingly, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was created to perform the following primary functions:

  • Assure the safety and health of workers at the workplace, wherever that may be.
  • Consult with and advise employers, employees, and representative organizations of the effective means of preventing occupational injuries and illnesses.
  • Conduct workplace inspections and investigations to determine whether employers are complying with standards.

OSHA has a key role in domestic preparedness and response activities. OSHA's mission to assure safe and healthful working conditions for our working men and women is a vital component in our nation's emergency response and recovery system. This document outlines the general parameters under which OSHA can assist, and the resources OSHA can provide during the various response phases associated with a catastrophic incident.

OSHA's Support Functions

If a catastrophic incident were to occur, OSHA would be required to respond according to its role within the established National Response Plan as the coordinator for worker safety and health technical support. However, the agency must also provide assistance according to its statutory mission to assure the safety and health of workers involved with or affected by the incident. If a catastrophic incident were to occur in one of the 25 states, Puerto Rico or Virgin Islands which are State Plan States, in most situations the State would have primary response responsibility. OSHA would work cooperatively with the OSHA-approved State Plan in providing the response. Workers affected by a terrorist event may include the following:

  • Workers who perform response, cleanup, and recovery operations.
  • Workers returning to workplaces following contamination and cleanup.
  • Workers in other workplaces that were not contaminated or directly involved, but who may require assistance due to concerns or issues that may arise from the catastrophic incident.

During all phases of a response, employers have the primary responsibility for the health and safety of their employees, including first responders, HAZMAT teams, and employees of any other responding agencies. Employers of all responders must have and follow safety and health procedures that protect their staff while responding.

A summary of how OSHA will fulfill its role and exercise its authority during the various phases of response to a catastrophic incident is provided below:

  1. Pre-Planning
    OSHA may perform various pre-planning activities in preparation for a catastrophic incident:
    • Proactive reviews by OSHA of safety and health programs developed by various response agencies.
    • Identification and resolution of pertinent safety and health issues before an incident occurs.
    • Increase coordination and understanding between OSHA and various response agencies.
  2. Response
    During the initial response or "crisis management" phase of a catastrophic incident, OSHA would:
    • Operate in a cooperative mode with other agencies in the established command system;
    • Support the lead federal agency by providing technical safety and health expertise;
    • Identify and resolve safety and health issues associated with the response effort;
    • Evaluate activities to ensure that employers (including responders) follow appropriate safety and health procedures; and
    • Respond directly to requests from employers or workers.
  3. Recovery
    As an incident transitions from response to the recovery or "consequence management" phase, OSHA's role is likely to increase in magnitude and scope, including enforcement. During all aspects of the clean-up and recovery operations, OSHA will:
    • Continue to operate within the established command system to support the lead agency by providing technical safety and health expertise;
    • Continue to monitor activities by employers, including government agencies and contractors, to ensure that appropriate safety and health procedures are being followed, and providing assistance, direction or enforcement as necessary;
    • Ensure that the various employers and contractors develop and implement relevant Health and Safety Plans (HASPs) according to applicable requirements of the OSHA HAZWOPER standard (29 CFR 1910.120);
    • Continue to respond directly to requests for assistance from employers and workers; and
    • Initiate enforcement actions as necessary and appropriate.
  4. Re-Occupancy
    Following any necessary decontamination efforts, OSHA will play a major role as employees are allowed to return to the worksite. Key issues in the re-occupancy phase include:
    • The ultimate responsibility in determining when it is "safe" to return to work lies solely with the employer.
    • Only OSHA has the authority to review the employer's decisions related to re-occupancy of the worksite. OSHA will evaluate these decisions and provide assistance, direction, and/or enforcement as necessary to assure a safe and healthful workplace for the returning workers.
    • The employer may rely upon information, guidance, and direction provided by various federal and local governmental agencies.
    • While employees may never be exposed to conditions that threaten their health or well-being, it may not always be possible or feasible to decontaminate the worksite to pre-event levels.
    • When determining appropriate cleanup levels, the employer may find it necessary to implement additional controls such as personal protective equipment and certain work practices as a supplement to decontamination efforts.
OSHA's Resources

OSHA has many resources to help it fulfill its role during all phases of a response to a catastrophic incident. OSHA's resources apply to both generalities and specifics of any given response effort. Those resources include:

  1. Safety and Health Expertise
    • Federal OSHA has approximately 1,200 occupational safety and health professionals organized into 10 regions across the country.
    • In addition to the headquarters office in Washington D.C., there are 10 regional offices, six district offices, and 87 area offices.
    • The 27 OSHA-approved State Plans have more than 1,300 additional safety and health compliance officers located in state offices throughout the country, and other technical and compliance assistance personnel.
    • There are also federally-funded state consultants throughout the Nation.
    • OSHA personnel have considerable expertise in industrial hygiene, occupational safety, engineering, health physics, chemistry, occupational medicine, occupational health nursing, toxicology, and epidemiology. Some of these personnel have military training and experience in dealing with chemical, biological, and radiological agents. The State Plan States also have direct jurisdiction and authority for State and local government employees, including first and second responders.
    • Upon notification, OSHA personnel can be immediately dispatched from local offices to provide support at the scene of a catastrophic incident. Additional OSHA personnel with specific expertise relevant to the safety and health needs of the event can be drawn from other offices to provide additional support, as required.
  2. Health Response Team/Specialized Response Teams
    • The OSHA Health Response Team (HRT) is the agency's primary technical resource for providing nationwide response to major emergency events. This team is part of the OSHA Directorate of Technical Support and Emergency Management, and is located at the OSHA Salt Lake Technical Center (SLTC), in Salt Lake City, Utah.
    • The HRT is a multidisciplinary team consisting of 10 senior-level staff with an average of 20+ years' experience, all of whom have advanced degrees in engineering, industrial hygiene, and/or health physics.
    • The HRT leads and coordinates actions for OSHA Specialized Response Teams organized to address chemical, biological, and radiological emergencies, as well as structural collapses. These teams provide technical expertise in recognizing and evaluating health and safety hazards associated with a wide range of complex or unusual operations during all phases of a catastrophic event.
    • The teams are equipped with specialized monitoring and personal protective equipment for use in emergency response activities.
    • The HRT/Specialized Response Teams are expected to deploy immediately and should be on site within 24 hours.
  3. Office of Occupational Medicine
    • The OSHA Office of Occupational Medicine is the Agency's primary medical resource. This office is also part of the OSHA's Directorate of Technical Support and Emergency Management, and is located in the Department of Labor headquarters in Washington, DC.
    • This office is a multidisciplinary team of health care professionals. The team is comprised of six physicians, augmented by medical residents from multiple occupational medicine training programs, a health scientist, and a toxicologist.
    • In addition to clinical and corporate occupational medicine, the team has experience in military medical deployments, weapons of mass destruction, family practice, oncology, and internal medicine.
    • The Office of Occupational Medicine can provide a medical officer on site if requested by the OSHA Regional Administrator.
  4. Exposure Monitoring/Equipment Capabilities
    • OSHA has critical experience and expertise in evaluating workplace exposures. Our personnel are well-versed in monitoring methods, instruments, sampling strategies, and results interpretation.
    • Where monitoring methods and exposure evaluation procedures are not well-established, such as with most chemical and biological warfare agents, OSHA is able to apply its occupational health and engineering expertise to assist in developing effective solutions for monitoring airborne and surface hazards, and for evaluating and interpreting worker exposures.
    • The OSHA Cincinnati Technical Center (CTC) stocks numerous types of monitoring equipment and provides equipment calibration and repair services. CTC engineers evaluate new and existing equipment and develop calibration systems, procedures and evaluation protocols. CTC staff members work with equipment manufacturers to develop new monitoring equipment or to modify existing equipment to meet emerging or urgent monitoring needs.
    • CTC also provides OSHA personnel with personal protective equipment (PPE) and expendable sampling supplies. During a Federal response effort when specific types of monitoring equipment must be rapidly deployed, CTC is capable of coordinating OSHA's monitoring equipment resources, related PPE and sampling supplies, and rapidly distributing needed equipment and supplies to the response site.
  5. Analytical Laboratories
    • OSHA has a fully-staffed and equipped analytical laboratory at the Salt Lake Technical Center (SLTC) in Salt Lake City, Utah.
    • The SLTC laboratory is staffed with 45 analytical chemists and additional support personnel. Analytical samples can be processed on a rapid-response basis, seven days per week when the need arises.
    • Analytical capabilities include a multitude of workplace hazards, such as particulate matter, asbestos, indoor air contaminants, biological hazards, organic chemicals, metals, silica, explosibility, soils, other inorganic compounds, flash point, and identification of unknowns such as pyrolysis products.
    • The SLTC laboratory also provides material failure analysis of ropes, pipes, chains, and metal structures. Laboratory instrumentation includes scanning and transmission electron microscopes, mass spectrometers, gas and liquid chromatographs, atomic absorption spectrometers, and x-ray diffraction equipment.
    • In addition, OSHA also operates the Wisconsin Occupational Health Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, which is staffed by 27 chemists, four microbiologists, two geologists, and two information specialists. At this lab, OSHA contracts for the processing of approximately 60,000 OSHA, State Plan, and Consultation Program samples annually. A significant service of this lab is environmental microbiological testing. Like the Salt Lake laboratory, the Wisconsin lab can operate seven days per week if needed. Instrumentation at the Madison lab is similar to that in Salt Lake City.
  6. Office of Engineering Services
    • OSHA has engineering staff through its Office of Engineering Services (OES), Directorate of Construction, who can respond to an incident resulting in structural collapse of buildings, bridges, and other structures.
    • The office can perform the following primary tasks:
      • Examine collapsed structures to determine the degree of structural failure.
      • Evaluate the structural integrity of the un-collapsed part of the structure.
      • Advise when and where rescue teams could safely enter the area of the collapsed structure.
      • Determine whether shoring and bracing of the remaining structure is needed to bring stability to the un-collapsed part of the structure. If shoring/bracing is required, assistance can be provided in the design of such a system.
      • Identify outside sources with structural engineering expertise.
      • Review plans prepared by contractors for immediate relief.
      • Assure safety of all workers at the site.
  7. Interactive, Multi-Media Communications Network
    OSHA has an extensive, multi-media network for communicating with America's employers and employees, including the following:
    • OSHA Web Site - OSHA maintains a strong internet presence with a web site that receives more than 51 million total hits each month, from employers, employees, and other stakeholders seeking technical and regulatory information, guidance, and training via electronic media. Information can be updated hourly. This vehicle provides a timely and well-recognized communication vehicle for important, authoritative information.
    • Office of Communications - Staffed with communications professionals, the Office can respond to media inquiries and prepare news releases at a moment's notice.
    • Field, State Plan, and On-site Consultation Program Offices - The field offices within OSHA's network, such as Area, State Plan, and On-site Consultation Program offices, provide an effective method for communicating information to local workplaces and professional and trade associations.
    • Stakeholder Network - OSHA has an established relationship with a stakeholder network in every type of workplace and occupation. The network consists of unions, trade and professional associations, employer associations, and attorneys involved in safety and health litigation. The Agency has ready access to these organizations and can use this network to help disseminate information.
    • OSHA's e-mail and phone (1-800-321-OSHA) compliance system - This established system provides individual employers and employees with answers to specific workplace questions. Contractor and OSHA staff respond to most inquiries within 24 hours.