By Christopher Fulmer, CIT, CHMM, ASP

For many industries and companies, hazardous materials and chemicals are a part of their daily operation.

They use them to make products, develop materials for their clients, conduct cleaning operations, and many other applications. And in most cases, the chemicals and materials pose no significant risk or threat because they are safely stored in their containers or used properly in a well-designed production system. But when a hazardous material or chemical is released from its safe storage either by accident, malfunction, or misuse, then we have a hazardous materials incident, or worse a hazardous materials emergency.

Employees may need to respond to contain the release, protect other employees, initiate a company’s emergency response plan or in some cases, clean up the spill. After the initial release, and the incident or emergency has ceased, it then turns into a hazardous waste clean-up operation. And now employees will be tasked in cleaning up hazardous waste and ensuring proper remediation, packaging, and storage.

The Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response regulation 29 CFR 1910.120, or HAZWOPER as it is normally called, is the OSHA regulation employers, first response agencies and remediation crews must follow during these situations.

In all those scenarios, properly trained and certified employees are needed to ensure that not only are they safe during the response or clean-up, but that other employees and the public are safe as well. These employees must understand the risks involved with such situations, understand how to protect themselves and others and utilize proper equipment efficiently and safely. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has developed regulations and requirements to ensure safety of response and clean-up workers and protection of the environment during hazardous materials releases and hazardous waste operations.

The Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response regulation 29 CFR 1910.120, or HAZWOPER as it is normally called, is the OSHA regulation employers, first response agencies and remediation crews must follow during these situations. Under HAZWOPER, any employee that is exposed or potentially exposed to hazardous substances or hazardous waste and are engaged in hazardous substance or hazardous waste incidents or clean-up specific operations must be properly trained and certified prior to any potential exposure. This sounds simple enough, but there are many aspects, and even training levels, to the HAZWOPER regulation and it can be confusing for most, even for some within the response community. Some may have heard they need a 40-hour HAZWOPER training certification, or an 8-hour Awareness Level, or an 8-hour Refresher. We’ve gotten many questions about this in the past, and you may be reading this with many of these same questions, such as… “In most cases it is the fire department that may respond to a spill, not an industry, so does my company need HAZWOPER training?” Or, “I only have used oil and have a hazmat company come clean-up any spills, why do I need it?” Or, “I’m not a hazardous waste site, and I don’t have hazardous waste, so does HAZWOPER even matter for my company?” And the most asked question is “what level of HAZWOPER training do I really need? 40-hour? 24-hour Operations? Which one is right? And can I take online, or does it have to be done elsewhere?”, it can be very, very confusing for most.

So how does HAZWOPER relate to general industry? Who actually needs HAZWOPER certification, and what level do they need? When does it apply?

The HAZWOPER regulation does apply to first responder agencies like fire departments and private haz-mat and remediation companies. You may hear in those cases that they follow NFPA 472 first responder levels, which is the National Fire Protection Association standard for Competencies of Responders to Hazardous Materials and Weapons of Mass Destruction. This standard, and the HAZWOPER regulation for emergency responders, are closely related. OSHA will refer to NFPA 472 as the standard to follow for first responder competency on hazardous materials spills and incidents. And NFPA 472 will specify the requirements and competency for Hazardous Materials First Responder Awareness, Operations, Technician and Specialist Levels.

29 CFR 1910.120 Appendix E: Training Curriculum Guidelines, which is what general industry must follow, mirror these requirements. These competencies, and responder levels, apply when a hazardous materials release, incident or emergency occurs in any setting. So, this can mean a train derailment of chlorine that a fire department responds to, or a 55-gallon drum of acetone in a paint booth at an automobile manufacturer. If a hazardous material is released from its proper storage, and action must be taken to contain or stop the releases and protect persons and the environment, then the HAZWOPER regulation requirement’s must be implemented. But to what extent? Which level applies?

For both NFPA 472 and HAZWOPER regulations, one or more of the first responder criteria may apply. Be it Awareness, Operation, Technician or Specialist. So, lets break them down as to what each level requires, and how much training you need. I will summarize the requirements in general terms, however, keep in mind NFPA 472 and 29 CFR 1910.120 Appendix E identifies the specific training requirements that must be met in specific detail:

  • Haz-Mat Awareness Level – this is the basic level for Haz-Mat response. For the Awareness Level responder, they will identify that there is a spill or release, initiate the emergency response plan and evacuate bystanders. That’s it! While training programs vary, their training is typically 8-16-hours in length (although there is no set time requirement) and usually covers identifying labels and placards, understanding emergency response plans and actions, going over the Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG) and knowing how to conduct evacuations.
  • Haz-Mat Operation Level – this level of responder will conduct all the Awareness Level competencies, but in addition, they will respond to contain the release “from a safe distance”, meaning they will work to contain the release without putting themselves in extreme exposure risk. They may utilize PPE and protective ensembles (Levels A, B and C protective ensembles), but they may not necessarily get into high exposure risk areas. Their training must cover the Awareness Level criteria and an additional 16-hours of Operations specific functions such as PPE, decontamination, incident hazards and risk, toxicology of exposure aspects, etc. It is usually conducted as a 24-40-hour Operations Level class since it includes the Awareness Level components.
  • Haz-Mat Technician Level – these responders get to do all the dirty work that you normally see in movies and on the news. They are trained to Awareness and Operations Level competencies but have additional competencies that allow them to be in the high exposure risk situations. Technician Level responders work to stop the release, use remediation technics to contain the spill, they identify unknowns using specialized equipment and chemistry techniques. So, they must understand a certain level of hazardous material chemistry, how to use specialized equipment, and know how to work and function in Level A, B and C ensembles. Their training usually ranges from 40-80-hours with hands-on practical exercises.
  • Haz-Mat Specialists – this level of responder is usually positioned in first response agencies like fire departments, state and county Office of Emergency Services and federal agencies. They are usually trained to the Operations or Technician Level, but have specific industry specialties they are qualified with such as Flammable Gas Specialist, Railcar specialty, etc. They also have to be well versed in state and local emergency response plans. This is typically not a general industry needed level.

So out of those response levels, what does an industry need? Well, this all depends on your industry, what chemicals and risks you have, and what you want your employees to actually do versus what you want outside agencies to do. Typically, an industry will never need Specialist Level or Technician Level. An industry, such as food production of automobile manufacturer, will not have unknowns they need their response teams to identify, or need to send an employee in a tank of acid that has a ruptured valve to stop a spill. They will call in a remediation company or first responder agency to do this. But they will absolutely need to have employees identify that a hazardous materials spill has occurred, initiate their response plan, and evacuate the facility. That’s Awareness Level. So, they may want to designate certain employees in chemical use and storage areas as Awareness Level team members. And they may want a team to contain a release from getting in stormwater drains, use the spill kits to absorb a spill, etc. They may designate a team of maintenance employees and/or chemical operators to be Operations Level Responders. But outside of that, typically industries stop there. But again, each industry and company will have specific conditions that may warrant additional training.

But what about Hazardous Waste clean-up, those levels did not say anything about the clean-up? Well Emergency Response Levels are just one part of HAZWOPER, the “ER” part. The Hazardous Waste Operations portion of HAZWOPER has its own training criteria, and that is only in 29 CFR 1910.120 and not NFPA. Once the before mentioned response levels are done with the initial spill or incident, and only hazardous waste is left, then the emergency responders’ job is done. They technically cannot deal with hazardous waste clean-up operations, only a spill or emergency involving hazardous waste. So now that’s where a “Hazardous Waste Site Worker” or “40-hour HAZWOPER” trained worker comes in. The HAZWOPER site worker may apply to some industries, but in most cases, this may be a remediation company that will come in to do the actual cleanup after a spill that will require 40-hour HAZWOPER. But in some cases, an employer may need their team to respond to a release and contain the spill, and then clean up the waste after, so they may need that level of training.

Under the HAZWOPER regulation, you have 24-hour and 40-hour training requirements specifically identified, but each level is different in what it allows the certified employee to do. Basically, the 24-hour training is only for anyone that may be going onto a hazardous waste site or clean-up operation but will not be exposed to any contamination risk and will not need protective equipment (like a respirator) to keep them from being exposed. An example would be a hazmat truck driver coming onto a superfund waste site to pick up a load of hazardous waste for shipment. They need to understand the risks of the site, understand emergency requirements, and identify risks, but they won’t be exposed to any hazardous materials, so they only need the 24-hour HAZWOPER certification. 40-hour HAZWOPER certified employees are the site workers that have the potential to be exposed to the risks and contaminated environments, conduct clean-up operations and need the additional training to understand proper protective measures. In addition to the 40-hour training, they must also be given 3 days of on-site training on the site specifics of each hazardous waste clean-up site they work on. So again, most industries do not need this level of qualification, but may depending on what their specific needs are and what employees may need to do.

And all those levels, be it HAZWOPER Site Worker or Emergency Responder, require 8-hours of annual refresher training or exercises on topics related to the HAZWOPER certification. This can be a combination of safety and HAZWOPER training throughout the year, and a hazmat exercise and even an actual hazmat response, that documented total up to 8-hours of refresher qualification. If you miss this 8-hour refresher by a considerable amount of time, you may have to go back through the original training… so do not miss it!

One added caveat to this is the Hazard Communication (HazCom) regulation 29 CFR 1910.1200 regulation. HazCom states, basically, that if a spill occurs and is a working amount of chemical and the clean-up poses no exposure risk to the employee, then they can conduct clean-up without needing HAZWOPER certification. An example would be a painter that spills a quart container of acetone on a workbench and they need to use rags to clean-up the spill and dispose of it. Under HazCom, it doesn’t take a HAZWOPER response team to conduct spill operations, but the employee still needs to be properly trained on when they can clean-up spills and how to safely do so. But if a quart container of hydrofluoric acid spills on a workbench, that should be left to the Haz-Mat response team. So, some considerable planning and determination is needed to be sure on this.

And as far as instructor led versus online for HAZWOPER, it is not recommended to take online training for the initial Operations, Technician or the 24-hour or 40-hour HAZWOPER, as OSHA has specific hands-on requirements for those training criteria. This is where instructor led training, with practical experience is needed. But for the Awareness level, or even the 8-hour annual refresher, online may be suitable.

While this was a general summary of just the response levels and training portions of the 29 CFR 1910.120 HAZWOPER regulation, along with NFPA 472 and the HazCom specifics and how they all relate to general industry, there is considerably more that needs to be understood and thought out to really understand what’s required during a hazardous materials incident or hazardous waste clean-up operation. And there is a lot more information needed to make the determination on what level of training each industry, company or even employee may need. There may be a company that needs all the levels, in various areas of the company and different teams, but hopefully this will clear some of this misconceptions and misunderstandings of HAZWOPER. Be sure to reach out to an Arbill Safety Advisor to help determine what training and support may be best for you and your company.

For more specific information on HAZWOPER and HAZWOPER requirements, the OSHA information page located at can provide additional guidance.