Oil Spills

For General Businesses

Even though general workers may not conduct the emergency response or recovery operations that rescue workers, law enforcement officers, or cleanup technicians would, 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 or after an oil spill incident. Please visit the Getting Started – General Business Preparedness page for additional information on planning, preparing, equipping, and training for emergencies.

Industries and businesses where facilities and workers might be affected by an oil spill emergency occurring near their workplace include:

  • Commercial fishing, shrimp, and shellfish industries;
  • Tourism (e.g., waterfront parks, hotels, resorts, rental properties);
  • Facilities or operations at shipyards, ocean ports, and inland harbors;
  • Facilities or operations located near petroleum processing or storage facilities; and
  • Businesses in communities near oil pipelines.

If an oil spill emergency occurs near a workplace, potential hazards to workers and others at the worksite or facility during or after a nearby oil spill include:

  • Flammable atmosphere;
  • Toxic aromatic (volatile organic) compounds (inhalation hazard), such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes;
  • Hydrogen sulfide (a toxic gas with a strong smell of rotten eggs); and
  • Physical hazards (e.g., slips, trips, and falls; drowning).

Employers should immediately protect workers from safety or health hazards at industries and businesses near an oil spill emergency:

  • Avoid any contact with the oil spill or any oil-contaminated surfaces or environments.
  • Prevent workers and others without appropriate HAZWOPER training from conducting oil spill emergency response or recovery operations.
  • Monitor instructions from emergency response officials, which may include sheltering-in-place or evacuation.

To properly protect workers, employers with facilities or operations that might be affected by hazards during or after a nearby oil spill emergency, may need to develop an appropriate emergency plan, which may include an Emergency Action Plan (EAP), required by 29 CFR 1910.38 or 1926.35, with procedures for relevant worker training.

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). See the Background page for more information on the NCP.

Response actions conducted under the NCP (40 CFR 300) must comply with the provisions of HAZWOPER, as required in 40 CFR 300.150. Workers participating in a response action under the NCP must have an occupational safety and health program consistent with HAZWOPER including training workers according to HAZWOPER's training requirements. These NCP response action requirements apply whether the responsible party or government agency is directing the emergency response1 or post-emergency response2 (cleanup) operations.

Visit OSHA's HAZWOPER Safety and Health Topics page for more information and guidance on the requirements of OSHA's HAZWOPER standard (29 CFR 1910.120).

HAZWOPER does not apply to incidental releases that are limited in quantity and pose no safety or health hazard to workers in the immediate vicinity of the spill, such as a minor or incidental release within a work place. The difference between emergency spills and incidental releases is described in the definition of emergency response in HAZWOPER paragraph (a)(3) and OSHA Directive CPL 02-02-073 Appendix A. An incidental release does not have the potential to become an emergency within a short time. If an incidental release occurs, employers do not need to implement HAZWOPER.

Although HAZWOPER may not apply to incidental releases, other OSHA standards may apply, such as the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) (29 CFR 1910.1200). If an employer expects workers to use absorbent materials or degreasing cleaners to clean up incidental releases, employers must provide workers with the appropriate training and necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) in order to minimize the hazards to workers. A minor or incidental oil spill may include, for example, oil spilled as a result of an equipment leak (e.g., from a generator or motor vehicle). See below for more information on

OSHA requires employers to assess their workplaces to determine if hazards are present, or are likely to be present, which necessitate the use of personal protective equipment (PPE). Details about employer responsibilities related to PPE, including requirements for certain types of PPE, are available on OSHA's Getting Started – PPE for Emergencies and Personal Protective Equipment Safety and Health Topics pages.

Under OSHA's PPE standards, employers are responsible for ensuring that their workers have and properly use PPE when necessary. PPE can include respiratory protection, protective clothing, and protective barriers used to prevent or reduce worker exposure to chemical (including oil), biological, radiological, nuclear (CBRN), and other hazards. The selection of PPE is based on anticipated hazards and PPE selections may need to be modified as a result of monitoring and assessing actual working conditions. When evaluating worker PPE needs, employers should consider the full range of particular hazards a worker may experience (e.g., respirator cartridges suitable for both chemical and particulate exposures even if workers may only need protection from particulates most of the time). Although employers of workers who are not emergency responders may not naturally think about hazards present during emergency events, it is important that all employers remember to identify hazards that may be present, and PPE that may be needed, in emergency conditions.

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 elimination/substitution and 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; and
  • Provide medical exams and/or fit testing, as required by OSHA standards, prior to using certain types of PPE (e.g., respirators); and
  • Regularly review and update the PPE program as hazards change.

OSHA's Safety and Health Topic pages on Personal Protective Equipment, Respiratory Protection, and Getting Started – PPE for Emergencies provide information on PPE for various hazards across a range of industries and links to relevant OSHA standards and more specific Safety and Health Topic web pages.

In the event of an oil spill 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 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” or near miss events) to improve future performance and response capabilities.

Potential Inhalation Hazard if an Oil Spill Emergency Occurs Nearby

Some oil products, such as gasoline, contain toxic aromatic compounds, including benzene – creating a potential inhalation hazard near an oil spill; benzene has a petroleum-like odor.

Inhaling benzene can irritate the nose and throat. Contact with benzene can irritate the skin and eyes.

Short-term exposure to high levels of benzene can cause headache, drowsiness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and loss of consciousness.

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that benzene causes cancer in humans. Long-term exposure to high levels of benzene in the air can cause leukemia, cancer of the blood-forming organs.

Authorities may recommend sheltering-in-place or evacuation to limit short-term exposure.

Employers may provide respirators and similar PPE to workers who remain at the workplace to limit short-term exposure immediately after an oil spill emergency.

OSHA strongly recommends following shelter in place 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.

Please visit the Getting Started – Evacuation and Sheltering in Place page for additional information.

After an oil spill emergency, state or local emergency response authorities, or the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) or EPA official leading a federal response, may issue a:

  • Voluntary advisory or an order to shelter-in-place. This action can occur when an unknown noxious odor sickens people at residences or businesses near a spill, sometimes sending people to a hospital. A shelter-in-place advisory or order is lifted after the source of the oil spill is identified and secured, and the odor investigated with findings that no health hazard exists.
  • A voluntary evacuation advisory or an evacuation order. This action can occur if an oil spill results in a fire with a plume of black smoke creating a safety and health hazard. Such black smoke may contain toxic chemicals and other harmful substances that could endanger people breathing it at nearby residences or businesses.

In past oil spill emergencies, state or local authorities have used air monitoring and sampling results showing high benzene levels as the basis for evacuations until benzene readings reach safer levels. Although there are no specific rules, health authorities usually review different guidelines (e.g. EPA Acute Exposure Guideline Levels) and scientific studies to make a decision about evacuation if high benzene levels occur near an oil spill emergency. Other factors that may be considered are the type of oil, the proximity of the oil spill to residences and businesses, and how quickly the fumes might dissipate based on weather conditions.3

OSHA's Evacuation Plans and Procedures eTool is an informative resource for business owners and employers regarding evacuation and shelter-in-place plans. The eTool can be used for oil spill emergency situations, and can help identify exit routes and shelter in place locations, account for workers and visitors, and get assistance in developing or improving evacuation, sheltering in place, and other emergency plans.

A Sulfur Dioxode Plume may create Inhalation Hazards prompting Evacuation

NIEHS Oil Spill Cleanup Training

Authorities may recommend or order an evacuation to limit short-term exposure for people at nearby businesses and residences if sulfur dioxide (SO2) is released when crude oil is spilled, burns, and creates a plume.

Short-term exposures to SO2 (ranging from 5 minutes to 24 hours) can cause adverse respiratory effects including bronchoconstriction (sudden narrowing of airway causing difficulty breathing) and increased asthma symptoms.

Other harmful health effects from SO2 exposure include causing or worsening respiratory disease (emphysema and bronchitis) and aggravating existing heart disease.

When OSHA’s HAZWOPER standard (29 CFR 1910.120) does not apply, other OSHA standards (e.g., 29 CFR 1910.38) 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 should shelter in place or evacuate.
  • 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.

1 Emergency response is "a response effort...to an occurrence which results, or is likely to result, in an uncontrolled release of a hazardous substance" including oil spills (29 CFR 1910.120(a)(3)).

2 Post-emergency response is performed "after the immediate threat of a release has been stabilized or eliminated and cleanup of the site has begun" including after an oil spill (29 CFR 1910.120(a)(3)).

3 As an example, a voluntary evacuation advisory based on benzene levels was implemented at a July 2010 oil spill in Michigan. See: Public Health Assessment, Evaluation of Air Contamination, Kalamazoo River Enbridge Oil Spill Calhoun and Kalamazoo Counties, Michigan, prepared by Michigan Department of Community Health under a Cooperative Agreement with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), Division of Community Health Investigations, August 26, 2014; https://www.michigan.gov/documents/mdch/Enbridge_Oil_Spill_Air__PHA_-_PC_08-26-2014_466005_7.pdf.