Oil Spills


Emergency responders for oil spills.
Emergency responders for oil spills can include response workers to control the spill, law enforcement, fire fighters, and emergency medical workers.

(photo source: CDC/NIOSH)

This page defines oil spill emergencies and provides examples of the types of oil spills that workers may encounter. It also introduces workers and employers to OSHA standards relevant to oil spill responses and OSHA's role in those responses. This page also provides an overview of key elements of the National Contingency Plan (NCP) for oil spill emergencies. It briefly outlines the jurisdiction and authorities of federal agencies for oil spill response and provides a brief overview of the phases of an oil spill response.

This page is organized under the following sections:

An oil discharge (spill) is the release of a liquid petroleum hydrocarbon into the environment, and is a form of pollution.1 The NCP defines oil discharge as any spilling, leaking, pumping, pouring, emitting, emptying, or dumping of oil, and generally excludes discharges that require compliance with certain permits. For purposes of the NCP, oil discharge also means substantial threat of discharge.2

The NCP is the federal government's blueprint for responding to oil discharges and hazardous substance releases. The NCP defines oil as any kind of oil in any form, including petroleum, fuel oil, sludge, oil refuse, and oil mixed with wastes but not dredged spoil (dirt or rock).3

Oil spill response is managed according to regulations in the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan, more commonly called the National Contingency Plan, or NCP (40 CFR 300). The NCP is the federal government's blueprint for responding to both oil spills and hazardous substance releases. Congress has broadened the NCP's scope over the years, to include releases at hazardous sites and it can be used for "multiple-hazard" response. The NCP describes federal government procedures for responding to hazardous substance releases and oil discharges. Appendix E of the NCP specifically addresses oil spill response. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), are within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and both agencies work together to lead development of the NCP.

The NCP promotes overall coordination among the hierarchy of responders and contingency plans. Oil spill response involves coordination between government agencies, community organizations, industry groups, and contractors. Federal and/or state agencies monitor the responsible party4 (generally the owner or operator of the vessel, facility, port, or pipeline involved in the spill). The federal government can direct oil spill cleanup operations if the responsible party does not respond adequately, is not capable of taking appropriate action, or is unknown.

National Response Team and Regional Response Teams

The National Response Team (NRT) is an organization of 15 federal departments and agencies responsible for coordinating emergency preparedness and response to oil and hazardous substance pollution incidents. The EPA and the USCG serve as Chair and Vice Chair, respectively.

The NCP outlines the role of the NRT and Regional Response Teams (RRTs) at the national level. There are 13 RRTs, one for each of 10 federal regions; plus one for Alaska, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Basin. Each RRT has federal government and as relevant, state or territorial government representation at the regional level.

OSHA is a member of the NRT and the RRTs. Under the NCP, OSHA can provide assistance on worker health and safety issues throughout an oil spill response action.5 The NCP's worker health and safety provisions are available at 40 CFR 300.150. OSHA also has authority under the NCP, to conduct safety and health inspections of oil spill cleanup operations that are hazardous waste sites.6 For more information, see the sections below on and .

Contingency Plans

Appendix E to 40 CFR 300–Oil Spill Response provides for establishment of Regional Contingency Plans (RCPs) and Area Contingency Plans (ACPs) that are implemented in conjunction with the NCP. Developed by the RRTs, RCPs establish overarching response strategies for their region.

Area contingency planning is conducted by Area Committees, which develop ACPs to provide detailed information on response procedures for their designated area. ACPs are developed in part to address removal of a worst case discharge (WCD) and to mitigate or prevent a substantial threat of a WCD from a vessel, offshore facility, or onshore facility operating in or near the designated area. A WCD is a discharge in adverse weather conditions of the entire cargo of a tank vessel, and for offshore or onshore facilities, the largest foreseeable discharge in adverse weather conditions.

Figure 1 summarizes the types of plans under the National Response System. Figure 2 provides more information about the relationships among the types of plans.

Oil spill response actions, such as activities related to stopping the oil spill, or containing the spilled oil, are considered "emergency response" activities under OSHA's Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) standard, 29 CFR 1910.120 and 1926.65. In addition, oil spill cleanup sites may be considered or may become hazardous waste sites and should follow the requirements for hazardous waste sites under HAZWOPER, which require specific training and control measures. For more information, see OSHA's HAZWOPER Safety and Health Topics page.

Per 40 CFR 300.150, oil spill response actions conducted under the NCP must comply with the provisions of HAZWOPER. For oil spill emergency response, the HAZWOPER provisions that most directly apply include:

  • Emergency response operations in HAZWOPER paragraph (q), and
  • Post-emergency response cleanup operations in HAZWOPER paragraph (q)(11). Note: this paragraph refers to HAZWOPER requirements in paragraphs (b) through (o).

For HAZWOPER training, emergency response training requirements are found in HAZWOPER paragraph (q)(6), and post-emergency response training requirements in paragraph (q)(11), which refers to HAZWOPER requirements in paragraphs (b) through (o). If workers are participating in an oil spill response action under the NCP, the employer must have an occupational safety and health program consistent with HAZWOPER and must train workers according to HAZWOPER's training requirements. These training requirements apply whether the responsible party or a government agency is directing the oil spill cleanup. In addition, workers who participate ONLY in post-emergency response require different training than emergency response workers.

During oil spill response actions, if HAZWOPER conflicts or overlaps with any other OSHA standard, employers must follow the provision that provides additional worker safety and health protection. Those OSHA standards include, but are not limited to, General Industry Standards (29 CFR 1910) and Construction Standards (29 CFR 1926).

This section summarizes the two basic phases of a response action under OSHA’s HAZWOPER standard: emergency response and post-emergency response. Depending on the size of the oil spill, these phases may be managed differently.

Emergency response is "a response effort...to an occurrence which results, or is likely to result, in an uncontrolled release of a hazardous substance" (29 CFR 1910.120(a)(3)). For oil spills, an uncontrolled release is a situation in which the oil and its associated airborne and surface contamination hazards are releasing into the environment or are in danger of releasing into the environment and posing a worker exposure hazard. Previous oil spill emergencies have clarified what is an emergency response in certain situations:

  • On-water containment, skimming operations, and underwater oil recovery operations are considered emergency response activities because the oil is still in danger of being released into the environment.
  • Oil in grounded ships, which is in danger of being released into the environment, represents an emergency response situation.
  • Shoreline cleanup is normally considered a post-emergency response (see below) unless the oil is below the high-tide mark or storm surge boundary (active or forecasted) and can reasonably be expected to be re-released into the marine environment.

Post-emergency response is performed "after the immediate threat of a release has been stabilized or eliminated and cleanup of the site has begun" (29 CFR 1910.120(a)(3)). Previous oil spill emergencies have clarified when oil is stabilized under certain situations:

  • Oil spilled into the environment is considered to be stabilized when it is in a stable container with no compromised structural integrity, which limits the potential for worker exposure to associated hazards. Such stabilized containers include floating bladders, barges, drums, and roll-off containers on shore.
  • Oil also considered to be stabilized when it is stranded on shore and is not reasonably expected to be released into the environment through wave or storm effects.
  • Note: Floating oil is not considered to be stabilized, even if contained within a boom.

During response to a large release, such as a marine oil spill, emergency response and post-emergency response cleanup activities may occur at the same time. In these cases, the boundaries between the emergency response area and the post-emergency response area must be well-defined and explained to response, recovery, and cleanup workers.

A Federal On-Scene Coordinator (FOSC) directs the federal response for oil spills under the NCP. The lead federal agency for response actions is delineated in the NCP by: 1) coastal areas, including the Outer Continental Shelf, or 2) inland areas, including rivers and other inland waters. FOSCs are pre-designated by the lead agency. Some emergencies may also involve a State On-Scene Coordinator (SOSC), from a designated state agency that is a member of the RRT.

Coastal Zone

In the coastal zone,7 the USCG provides the FOSC and serves as the lead for oil spill responses.8 The USCG maintains continuously manned facilities, which can be used for command, control, and surveillance of oil discharges and hazardous substance releases occurring in the coastal zone. Precise boundaries for the coastal zone are determined by EPA/USCG agreements and identified in RCPs. In addition, the USCG provides the FOSC for oil spills from facilities and vessels that are under the jurisdiction of another federal agency in the coastal zone.

Inland Zone

In the inland zone,9 EPA generally takes the lead and provides the FOSC.10 Precise boundaries for the inland zone are determined by EPA/USCG agreements and identified in RCPs. In addition, EPA provides the FOSC for all inland areas for which an ACP is required under the Clean Water Act, as amended by the Oil Pollution Act.

Offshore Facilities

Response actions for oil spills that originate from offshore facility operations regulated under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act must be conducted in accordance with the NCP.11 The U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) regulates and provides oversight for offshore oil and gas exploration and production facilities and associated pipelines and pipeline facilities under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act and the Clean Water Act, as amended by the Oil Pollution Act. BSEE establishes oil discharge contingency planning requirements for offshore facilities in the Outer Continental Shelf.12 BSEE’s jurisdiction extends from the end of "state waters" (e.g., the state territorial limit is typically three nautical miles for most states) offshore to the seaward extent of federal jurisdiction, typically 200 nautical miles offshore.13

Section 4(a) of the OSH Act limits the application of the Act to work performed in a U.S. state or territory, or in facilities covered under the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Lands Act. A workplace in a state, or territory can be on land, inland waters, or on waters within the state territorial limit, which is 3 miles for most states (except Texas and the Gulf coast of Florida, where the state territorial limit is 9 miles). The OCS Lands Act applies only to structures or facilities fixed to the ocean floor, not to vessels travelling over the OCS.

Per section 4(b)(1) of the OSH Act, OSHA is preempted from regulating any working condition (e.g., occupational risk/hazard) addressed by requirements of another federal agency. Although the OCS Lands Act applies to certain working conditions on OCS Lands, it does not apply to working conditions with respect to which the Coast Guard or other federal agencies, including the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (formerly called the Minerals Management Service), exercise statutory authority to prescribe or enforce standards affecting occupational safety and health. Hence, for oil rigs located on the OCS, OSHA authority and regulations apply only for safety and health hazards not covered by other agency regulations.

Because BSEE and the USCG have closely aligned jurisdictional responsibilities for offshore oil and gas facilities on the Outer Continental Shelf, the two agencies developed a 2004 Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) on Agency Responsibilities and a 2012 MOA for Oil Discharge Planning, Preparedness, and Response. Although the USCG serves as the pre-designated FOSC for oil spill responses within the coastal zone, BSEE also has responsibilities for offshore facilities under its jurisdiction. For an oil spill originating from an offshore facility:

  • BSEE has primary responsibility for monitoring and directing all efforts related to securing the source of an oil discharge and reestablishing source control.
  • The USCG has primary responsibility for directing and monitoring all response efforts for removing discharged oil into or on the navigable waters and adjoining shorelines.
  • The USCG has primary responsibility for recovering discharged oil, and for mitigating adverse impacts from the discharge.

Memorandum of Understanding Between the Coast Guard and OSHA Concerning
Occupational Safety and Health on the Outer Continental Shelf

On December 19, 1979, the U. S. Coast Guard and OSHA signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to establish procedures to increase consultation and coordination between the agencies with respect to matters affecting the occupational safety and health of personnel working on the OCS of the U.S. The MOU specifies that OSHA will cooperate with the USCG to maximize the safety and health protection of employees, avoid duplication of effort, and avoid undue burdens on the maritime industry. Also, on June 10, 2010, OSHA and the Federal On Scene Coordinator, Department of Homeland Security signed a Memorandum of Understanding concerning Occupational Safety and Health Issues related to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Response.

During the response to, and recovery from, emergencies or disasters, OSHA helps protect the safety and health of response and recovery workers. In addition to OSHA’s enforcement and compliance assistance activities, OSHA can provide technical assistance and support to federal, state, local, tribal, territorial, and insular area agencies under the NCP and the National Response Framework Worker Safety and Health Support Annex. The Getting Started – OSHA’s Role in Emergency Response page provides additional information on this topic.

The National Response Framework establishes a comprehensive all-hazards plan for responding to Incidents of National Significance. The National Response Framework is the core plan for managing domestic incidents and details how the federal government coordinates with state, local, tribal government, and the private sector, during such incidents.

The National Response Framework integrates the NCP. During oil spill response under the NCP, OSHA provides technical assistance and support to the FOSC (and to the incident command system created for the response) to protect the safety and health of response, recovery, and cleanup workers, often at the request of other government agencies. If necessary, OSHA uses enforcement action under the OSH Act to assure that workers are properly protected.

Spill of National Significance (SONS)

Under the NCP, a discharge may be classified as a spill of national significance (SONS) by the Administrator of EPA for discharges occurring in the inland zone and the Commandant of the USCG for discharges occurring in the coastal zone. (See 40 CFR 300.323)

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill was declared an actual SONS incident.

During Incidents of National Significance, OSHA leads implementation of the National Response Framework Worker Safety and Health Support Annex14 to protect response and recovery worker safety and health. OSHA can provide technical assistance and support to protect response and recovery worker safety and health during incidents requiring a coordinated federal response, including:

  • Developing a site-specific Health and Safety Plan (HASP);
  • Identifying, assessing, and controlling health and safety hazards;
  • Conducting response and recovery worker exposure and safety monitoring;
  • Collecting and managing data (e.g., worker exposures, accidents/injuries), and providing exposure and risk management information;
  • Providing technical assistance and support for an incident-specific personal protective equipment (PPE) program, including the selection, use, and decontamination of PPE;
  • Providing incident-specific response and recovery worker training;
  • Providing technical assistance, advice, and support for medical surveillance and monitoring for response and recovery workers; and
  • Providing technical assistance to include industrial hygiene expertise, occupational safety and health expertise, engineering expertise, and occupational medicine expertise;
  • Disseminating safety and health information.

As part of OSHA’s role in the NCP, OSHA’s Health Response Team (HRT) can provide technical assistance and support for OSHA's regional operations. The SRT includes industrial hygienists, engineers, and other occupational safety and health experts who are highly trained and experienced in identifying and mitigating hazards associated with catastrophic events.

OSHA’s Whistleblower Program also administers the whistleblower provisions under several environmental protection statutes, along with the OSH Act which protects workers who report injuries or make safety and health complaints about worker safety. OSHA conducts whistleblower investigations under both the OSH Act and the whistleblower provisions of several environmental statutes: the Clean Water Act (CWA), also known as, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA), Clean Air Act (CAA), Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA), Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), and Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

HAZWOPER Incident Commander

The Incident Command System (ICS)/Unified Command (UC) is used for managing oil spill responses. HAZWOPER requires that a senior official who is present at the response site, an Incident Commander, leads an emergency response operation (29 CFR 1910.120(q)(6)(v)). For oil spills, the FOSC (ranking USCG officer or EPA official) usually functions as the Incident Commander at the response site for this HAZWOPER requirement. Under the NCP, the FOSC has ultimate responsibility for addressing worker health and safety concerns throughout the entire response area.15 The FOSC is ultimately responsible for directing all response efforts,16 and the NCP states that the FOSC may call on OSHA for assistance in worker safety and health issues.17

Federal On-scene Coordinator

Federal On-scene coordinator (FOSC) means the federal official predesignated by EPA or the USCG to coordinate and direct oil spill responses under Subpart D (Operational Response Phases for Oil Removal) of the NCP. (40 CFR 300.5)

See Table 1 for an overview of FOSC roles in the four phases of oil spill response operations.

The DHS/FEMA Incident Command System Resources website and the DHS/U.S. Coast Guard Incident Management Handbook (May 2014) provide additional guidance on implementing the ICS during a response. These resources explain the roles and responsibilities of the participants in the ICS, the role of safety and health personnel in the ICS, and the role of a UC structure in coordinating an effective response. This guidance may be useful for employers, response and recovery workers, and others affected by emergency situations.

OSHA Authority under NCP

As explained above in the section, the NCP in 40 CFR 300.150 incorporates the OSHA HAZWOPER standard and also addresses worker safety and health requirements for response actions. Under the NCP:

  • OSHA and states with approved state plans have authority to conduct safety and health inspections to assure that workers are being protected and to determine if the site is in compliance with the general duty clause18 and OSHA standards under the OSH Act.
  • OSHA may take any other action necessary to assure that workers are properly protected and, at the request of other government agencies, may provide advice and consultation to the FOSC and other agencies in the NRT.19
  • OSHA may provide technical assistance and support during a response and has the authority to conduct safety and health inspections to assure that employees are being protected and to determine if the site is in compliance with safety and health standards. The NCP does not limit OSHA’s existing statutory enforcement authority.20
When a Responsible Party is Identified

Response actions under the NCP must comply with the provisions for response action worker safety and health in OSHA’s HAZWOPER standard.21 In a response action taken by a responsible party, the responsible party must assure that an occupational safety and health program consistent with OSHA’s HAZWOPER standard is made available for the protection of workers at the response site.22 Applicable requirements, standards, and regulations of the OSH Act and of state OSH laws must be followed.23 When in technical assistance mode during a response, OSHA may provide oversight and monitoring of the responsible party’s activities and programs to ensure response, recovery, and cleanup workers are properly protected.

See the Preparedness page for more information on OSHA requirements for employers to have a detailed site-specific health and safety plan.

The NCP delineates four specific phases for oil spill response operations. These four phases may run sequentially, or concurrently, depending on the magnitude and complexity of the incident. Table 1 provides a brief overview of the four phases under the NCP and a general comparison to the OSHA HAZWOPER emergency response and post-emergency response phases.

1 For more information on what an oil spill is, see the NIEHS/OSHA oil spill cleanup training tool, Safety and Health Awareness for Oil Spill Cleanup Workers, which provides a health and safety resource for awareness-level training for workers who will participate in oil spill response, recovery, and cleanup.

2 See 40 CFR 300.5.

3 See 40 CFR 300.5.

4 The responsible party is in charge of preparing for, responding to, and paying for cleanup and damages from its pollution incidents. The responsible party must follow procedures in its facility plan or vessels response plan, which provides for resources to respond to a worst case discharge.

5 See 40 CFR 300.135(g); also Appendix E to 40 CFR 300, 5.0(h).

6 See 40 CFR 300.175(b)(11); also Appendix E to 40 CFR 300, 6.4.7.

7 See 40 CFR 300.5 and Appendix E to Part 300, 1.5 Definitions. Under the NCP, the "coastal zone" is defined as: "all United States waters subject to the tide, United States waters of the Great Lakes, specified ports and harbors on inland rivers, waters of the contiguous zone, other waters of the high seas subject to the NCP, and the land surface or land substrata, ground waters, and ambient air proximal to those waters."

8 See 40 CFR 300.120(a)(1) and 300.175(b)(1). Under the NCP, the "inland zone" is defined as: "the environment inland of the coastal zone excluding the Great Lakes and specified ports and harbors on inland rivers."

9 See 40 CFR 300.5 and Appendix E to Part 300, 1.5 Definitions.

10 See 40 CFR 300.120(a)(2) and 300.175(b)(2).

11 See 40 CFR 300, Appendix E to Part 300 5.3.1(d).

12 See 40 CFR 300.175(b)(9)(v). BSEE was created in October 2011, after a federal reorganization. Prior to October 2011, the Minerals Management Service (MMS) provided oversight of offshore operations.

13 For more information about BSEE, see: https://www.bsee.gov/who-we-are.

14 National Response Framework, Worker Safety and Health Support Annex, May 2013.

15 See 40 CFR 300.135(l) and 300.150.

16 See 40 CFR 300.135(a).

17 See 40 CFR 300.135 (h).

18 See 40 CFR 300.175(b)(11).

19 See 40 CFR 300.175(b)(11).

20 See 40 CFR 300.150(e).

21 40 CFR 300.150(a).

22 40 CFR 300.150(b).

23 40 CFR 300.150(e).