Does your mechanics have to wear an SCBA to response to a controlled ammonia release? HAZMAT / HAZWOPER we think a full team from incident command to decontamination. Emergency response teams are just that, but is ruling of a mechanic responding to a controlled ammonia release? This week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued a decision limiting the reach of the HAZMAT standard 29CFR§ 1910.120.
In May 2017, one of the underground pipes became over pressurized, and, as it was designed to do, the system automatically diverted ammonia from that pipe to the sump. A short while later, ammonia saturated the sump water, and excess ammonia began venting to the outside. The ammonia in the air triggered a sensor at the skid set to alarm if the ambient ammonia reached 50 parts per million. About 45 minutes after the ammonia began to vent, a security guard heard the alarm sounding at the skid and smelled ammonia. He began having trouble breathing and reported the leak. Once notified, control-room personnel dispatched “rovers”—specially trained response employees to manage the ammonia release. Upon arriving at the skid, the rovers called the control room and instructed those there to “isolate” one of the valves regulating the flow of ammonia. Meanwhile, the rovers continued working on other parts of the skid and added water to the sump. Working together, plant personnel stopped the ammonia release, but because the rovers arrived at the skid without “self-contained breathing apparatus[es],” OSHA fined Tampa Electric $9,054 under 29 C.F.R. § 1910.120(q)(3)(iv).
29 C.F.R. § 1910.120(q)(3)(iv)
Emergency response or responding to emergencies means a response effort by employees from outside
the immediate release area or by other designated responders (i.e., mutual aid groups, local fire departments, etc.) to an occurrence which results, or is likely to result, in an uncontrolled release of a hazardous substance. Responses to incidental releases of hazardous substances where the substance can be absorbed, neutralized, or otherwise controlled at the time of release by employees in the immediate release area, or by maintenance personnel are not considered to be emergency responses within the scope of this standard. Responses to releases of hazardous substances where there is no potential safety or health hazard (i.e., fire, explosion, or chemical exposure) are not considered to be emergency responses.
It would therefore appear that releases controlled by, for example, pressure relief valves or rupture disks that prevent massive releases would not be covered by the HazWoper Standard. In this case, we must decide whether the Tampa Electric Company violated OSHA’s Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response standard when employees at one of its power plants responded to an ammonia release without donning certain protective gear. Because we conclude that the release of ammonia at Tampa Electric’s plant wasn’t “uncontrolled” within the meaning of the OSHA standard, we hold that the standard didn’t apply to Tampa Electric’s response and, therefore, that Tampa Electric didn’t violate it.
This does not mean that employees may respond to releases without protection. OSHA could still allege a violation of its respiratory protection standard if employees were to respond, for example, without any sort of respirator available or if the leak is deemed uncontrolled. There are 7 factors that may contribute to a release to be determined as an emergency response.
- The response come from the outside the immediate release area
- The release requires evacuation of employees in the area
- The release poses, or has the potential to pose, conditions that are IDLH
- The release requires immediate attention because of imminent danger
- The release may cause high levels of exposure to toxic substances
- There is uncertainty about whether the employees in the work area can handle the severity of the hazard with the PPE and equipment that has been provided
- The situation is unclear, or data are lacking on important factors
The upshot of the decision is not that employees responding to controlled releases may go unprotected but that employers have greater discretion in selecting protective measures than the rigid emergency response provisions of the HazWoper / HAZMAT Standard would give them, and that they may want to incorporate the lessons learned to defend their own programs and incidental and controlled releases.
The image on this post is not in reference to the incident in question