Radiation Emergency Preparedness and Response

Overview

Radiation emergencies can involve a variety of accidental and intentional incidents, from small to very large. These include:

  • Spills or releases of radioactive materials (e.g., radionuclides or radioactive isotopes) from facilities where they are used for research or medical procedures.
  • Transportation incidents involving radioactive materials.
  • Medical procedures involving radioactive materials, such as radiopharmaceuticals.
  • Leaks in equipment (e.g., industrial equipment).
  • Misuse of or incidents involving industrial radiographic or medical source materials.
  • Lost, found, or orphan (i.e., no longer under proper control, abandoned) radioactive material sources.
  • Use of a device designed intentionally to release radioactive material (e.g., a "dirty bomb") or expose people to radiation.
  • Release from a fixed nuclear facility, such as a nuclear power plant or a research or test nuclear reactor.
  • Nuclear weapon accident, such as at a facility that manufactures or stores weapons or their components.
  • Nuclear detonation, such as from stolen nuclear weapons or an improvised nuclear device (IND) (i.e., a makeshift bomb).
Robert Dudash via Wikimedia Commons
Robert Dudash via Wikimedia Commons
Oregon Department of Transportation
Oregon Department of Transportation
Oregon Department of Energy
Oregon Department of Energy
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Radiation emergencies can range from small-scale contamination events to very large catastrophes. They can be associated with a variety of sources, including (clockwise from top left): radioactive isotopes used in medical procedures; transportation accidents involving a vehicle carrying radioactive materials; detonations of INDs; and releases of material from nuclear power plants.

 

Note: Radiation emergencies may also result from international nuclear warfare. While this webpage is not intended to cover in detail such events or other widespread use of nuclear weapons, the protective actions and other recommendations it describes may still apply during such events. The page does address localized use of INDs or radiological dispersal devices as terrorist weapons.

Although radiation emergencies can result in worker exposure to many different types of hazards (e.g., fire, explosions), this page primarily focuses on the hazards of ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation is the primary type of radiation associated with radiation emergencies. Exposure to ionizing radiation—especially at higher doses—increases the risk of developing health effects. If signs and symptoms appear, they can range from blood cell changes and skin burns to radiation sickness, cancer, and death.

This page is intended to help:

  • Workers and employers who may be involved in emergency response operations or related activities during or following a radiation emergency. See the Preparedness and Response pages for information about how to prepare for and respond to such events.
  • Employers and workers who may be impacted by radiation emergencies, but who do not have emergency response roles. See the General Businesses page for information on how to prepare for and protect against hazards during and after such events.

The radiation protection guidance discussed here should be implemented within a framework of existing OSHA standards, including, as applicable, those for ionizing radiation, emergency response operations, and personal protective equipment (PPE). This webpage discusses such standards generally and collectively: for example, mentions of "OSHA's Ionizing Radiation standards" refer to standards that protect workers from ionizing radiation in general industry, construction, shipyard employment, marine terminals, and longshoring. Readers should familiarize themselves with this webpage's detailed discussions of OSHA standards as they relate to general business preparedness (on the General Business page) and emergency response operations (on the Preparedness page). Those pages also identify specific standards that comprise OSHA's Ionizing Radiation, Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER), and PPE standards.

Readers should also note that OSHA's Ionizing Radiation standards have not been substantially revised from the provisions in the original 1971 version of 29 CFR 1910.1096. The U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, other agencies that regulate ionizing radiation exposure, both have updated standards based on more recent radiation protection guidance, such as that of the International Commission on Radiological Protection.

Although initial recovery activities may overlap with response activities, this webpage focuses on protecting workers during the emergency response operations. While some critical emergency response missions may justify additional risks to worker safety and health, employers, incident commanders, and other decision makers must protect workers fully as work transitions to recovery operations.

The webpage includes the following sections:

Background

Defines radiation and radiation emergencies and provides examples of the types of incidents that workers may encounter. It also introduces workers and employers to hazard assessment and radiation measurement and describes health effects typically associated with exposure to radiation.

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General Businesses

Prepares employers and workers who do not have emergency response duties with guidance to protect themselves and others in their workplaces in the event of a radiation emergency.

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Preparedness

Provides information on planning, equipping, and training emergency response employers and workers to respond to radiation emergencies.

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Response

Provides information on personal protective equipment, exposure monitoring and limits, medical countermeasures (i.e., treatment) and management, and other considerations during an emergency response. The information applies to emergency response employers and workers.

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OSHA Resources

Provides links to more OSHA information concerning radiation emergencies, including OSHA standards, standard interpretations, directives, memoranda of understanding, Safety and Health Topics pages, and other resources.

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Additional Resources

Provides links to more information concerning radiation emergencies, including types of hazards, exposure assessments, training, sheltering and evacuation, and decontamination.

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For additional discussion of technical and regulatory information regarding the recognition, evaluation, and control of occupational health hazards associated with radiation exposure, visit OSHA's Safety and Health Topics pages for ionizing radiation and non-ionizing radiation.