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Fire station hazmat rules are the officer’s job

It may seem like a bunch of bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo, but ignoring in station hazardous materials can bring stiff fines

Here’s a pop quiz on how well you know your fire station.

  1. How many hand-held spray bottles are there in your fire station today?
  2. How many of them are correctly labeled according to OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard?
  3. Does your fire station have a readily accessible Material Safety Data Sheet for every product that is stored and used in your fire station?

The answers in order are probably many, probably not all of them, and probably not.

As the company officer, you are the first-line supervisor for your fire station and it’s your responsibility to ensure that the correct answers are all of them for question 2 and yes for question 3. Those correct answers come from OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard.

Congress established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1970 to standardize safety for all workers in the United States. OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard was first adopted in 1983 with limited scope (48 FR 53280). In 1987, the scope was expanded to cover all industries where employees are potentially exposed to hazardous chemicals (52 FR 31852).

OSHA manages the HCS nationally except for those states that have an approved plan like VOSHA in Virginia. The standard, identified in 29 C.F.R. 1910.1200, basically says that employers must have MSDS readily available, train employees to detect the presence of hazardous chemicals and their health threats.

Labeling requirements
The labeling requirements in the HCS (paragraph (f)(7) of the rule) apply to any non-stationary containers in the workplace that contain products, substances or mixtures. Those labels must include:

  • The identity of the hazardous chemical(s).
  • Appropriate hazard warnings.
  • The name and address of the chemical manufacturer, importer or other responsible party.

Non-product specific spray bottles may be used, but must have a printed label affixed to them containing the above information. Here’s an excerpt from a standards clarification letter from OSHA to an employer who question the standard’s interpretation.

As stated in paragraph (f)(7) of the rule, “The employer is not required to label portable containers into which hazardous chemicals are transferred from labeled containers, and which are intended only for the immediate use of the employee who performs the transfer.”

Section 29 CFR 1910.1200(f)(6) states the following: “The employer may use signs, placards, process sheets, batch tickets, operating procedures, or such written materials in lieu of affixing labels to individual stationary process containers....” As stated in your letter, your clients store various types of chemicals in containers on shelves or in cabinets and drawers; however, these containers are not considered stationary (not capable of being moved) process containers. Therefore, each container must convey the information outlined in section (f)(5).

Materials Safety Data Sheets
The HCS requires that the employer shall maintain copies of the required MSDS in the workplace for each hazardous chemical, and shall ensure that they are readily accessible during each work shift to employees when they are in their work areas. Electronic access and other alternatives to maintaining paper copies of the safety data sheets are permitted as long as no barriers to immediate employee access in each workplace are created by such options.

Paragraph (g)(9) of the HCS requires that an MSDS for all products and mixtures in the workplace, not just MSDS information, be kept at the work location. This requirement includes mobile workforces where the standard permits the MSDS to be kept at the primary workplace as long as all of the required information contained on the MSDS can be immediately obtained by employees in an emergency.

OSHA 1910.1200(h)(1) requires that employers provide employees with effective information and training on hazardous chemicals in their work area at the time of their initial assignment, and whenever a new chemical hazard the employees have not previously been trained about is introduced into their work area.

Information and training may be designed to cover categories of hazards (like flammability or carcinogenicity) or specific chemicals. Chemical-specific information must always be available through labels and safety data sheets.

Training requirements
All employers are required by the HCS to have training pertinent to the standard and its provisions.

Employees should receive training in the department’s methods and observations that may be used to detect the presence or release of a hazardous chemical in the work area (such as monitoring conducted by the employer, continuous monitoring devices, visual appearance or odor of hazardous chemicals when being released, etc.).

Employees also must be educated and trained on the physical, health, simple asphyxiation, combustible dust and pyrophoric gas hazards, as well as hazards not otherwise classified of the chemicals in the work area.

They should also receive training in the measures employees can take to protect themselves from these hazards, including specific procedures the employer has implemented to protect employees from exposure to hazardous chemicals, such as appropriate work practices, emergency procedures and personal protective equipment to be used.

Heavy fines
And finally, employers must deliver training on the details of the department’s hazard communication program, including an explanation of the labels received on shipped containers and the workplace labeling system used by their employer, MSDS — including the order of information listed on the MSDS — and how employees can obtain and use the appropriate hazard information.

The labeling of spray bottles and access to MSDS’s in the fire station may seem like small potatoes in the grand scheme of the training and education that fire department’s must provide to their members. However, consider these two points.

First, the HCS is the law and not following the law can have serious financial consequences for the department whose first-line supervisors are not ensuring compliance with the law. Violating OSHA regulations carries a $7,000 fine for each occurrence and $70,000 if the violation is found to willful.

Second, much of the education and training necessary to comply with the HCS standard, particularly knowing how to use the information provided on a MSDS, has direct application in the field when fire officers and firefighters respond to a hazardous materials incident.

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.