Understanding the HAZWOPER Standard

Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response protocols, often referred to as HAZWOPER, are a set of standards for dealing with projects involving the cleanup of toxic waste. HAZWOPER requires companies to follow a strict set of health and safety requirements when responding to spillage emergencies or dealing with toxic cleanups.

A Brief History

Officially written up by the OSHA in 1989, HAZWOPER seeks to protect the health and safety of workers. The term, however, predates the OSHA’s official adoption by several decades. For example, in World War II the term was used surrounding the Hanford Site and others involved in the creation of atomic weapons. In fact, the HAZWOPER acronym actually started out as just HAZWOP; the U.S. Department of Defense’s protocols for cleaning up military waste after testing and operations related to the war. Thirty-some years later, a similar acronym would arise in regards to multiple disasters involving toxic waste (including the infamous Love Canal disaster, in which a community was plagued by birth defects and other health issues as a result of housing development construction on a site contaminated by thousands of tons of toxic waste). Today, OSHA’s HAZWOPER has encompassed several past iterations of cleanup procedures by various governmental bodies through the years to become one unified set of standards.


HAZWOPER applies to three specific categories of operations, the first of which is hazardous waste cleanup sites. The second category is the handling of waste that is conducted at a designated treatment storage and disposal facility. The third category is reserved for emergency response, for example a chemical plant spill, or a spill in transport (such as a ship or truck tank spill).

In Practice

Applying HAZWOPER to any of your own operations which fall into the aforementioned categories requires that you do so under a written safety and health program. Your procedures for controlling and cleaning up a hazardous waste substance must be written with specific detail to your own facilities and operations, and you should have a different version for each possible site within your business or operation. In this way, HAZWOPER provides a framework to employers and a promise of safety to employees, but leaves the specifics up to you – which is generally appropriate given how varied hazardous waste operations can be.

The following steps can help you as you navigate the creation and execution of an OSHA compliant HAZWOPER program.

  1. Detailed writing. Write your plan and make sure that it hits on all of the points in the above paragraph – namely that it is specific to each possible application.
  2. Distribute the plan to any and all employees and independent contractors who will be on the site. If not directly distributed, make sure that it is readily available and that everyone knows where they can find the procedures.
  3. Training training training! One of the most cut-and-dried requirements of HAZWOPER, which normally doesn’t change depending on your specific operation, is the amount of training required of your workers. General site employees will need to complete 40 hours of training based around your HAZWOPER program, and each year they’ll need to complete eight hours of refresher training. Supervisors and managers are required to have additional hazardous waste certifications, and even more training is required for emergency responders.
  4. Ensure the quality of all vehicles, machinery, and PPE. Because hazardous waste sites can be so dangerous, you should be conducting regular inspections of all equipment involved, often with a greater frequency than you would for a non-HAZWOPER site. One of the most important considerations is your personal protection equipment, which prevents employees’ skin, lungs, eyes, and other sensitive tissues from coming in direct contact with any of the materials. OSHA has specific requirements for the grade of PPE you’re required to have based on the materials your employees are working with.

Following these steps will see you well on your way to a comprehensive HAZWOPER program; refer to OSHA HAZWOPER Standard, 1910.120 for further specifics.

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