Depending on where you turn, you will likely find differing definitions of what exactly a hazardous material (hazmat) is. And, truth be told, none will give you a real straight answer.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) includes any substance or chemical which is a “health hazard” or “physical hazard” in its definition.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) builds off the OHSA definition by adding “item or chemical which can cause harm to people, plants, or animals when released by spilling, leaking, pumping, pouring, emitting, emptying, discharging, injecting, escaping, leaching, dumping or disposing into the environment.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) furthers the jumble by adding “a hazardous material as any item or chemical which, when being transported or moved in commerce, is a risk to public safety or the environment.”

That’s a lot to weed through. However, former firefighter and current Safety Consultant for Pearl Engineering, Scott Burkart, attempts to lay it out straight.

“A hazmat is a product (biological, chemical or physical) that once it leaves its container can cause damage to a person, wildlife or the environment,” Scott explained. “Most products are safe for use if used correctly, in the proper amount and in proper conditions. If they are released, however, there is a capability for danger.”

Hazmat Response and Training

For any organization or business that deals with or handles potentially hazardous chemicals, Scott says education and training are absolutely necessary.

“Because of the essential equipment and time it takes to train, many businesses avoid training,” he said. “They figure they will just evacuate and defer to outside aid. The problem is, outside aid isn’t always going to be available. And, in a situation where immediate action is necessary to maintain the situation, the responsibility must fall internally.”

OHSA standard for handling a hazmat response situation is covered and trained under what is called Hazardous Waste Operation and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER). This level of training, as well as an internal plan approved by the Local Emergency Planning Commission (LEPC), are vital for the safety of employees, structures and the surrounding area.

The basic plan organizations must have should cover the roles and actions, including evacuation or rescue procedures, of all employees in the event of anything bigger than what is deemed a small spill or exposure. The plan must also be compatible with the Incident Command System in the event the incident expands.

HAZWOPER – 4 Levels of Hazmat Training

OHSA’s HAZWOPER training is sectioned into 4 different levels: Awareness Level, Operations Level, Technician Level and Specialist Level.

Depending on the situation and expectations of the environment and potential hazards, the amount and level of training vary. Although, it is worth noting that each level builds off one another. Here’s a brief overview of what each entail.

  1. Awareness Level

Requiring only a couple hours of training, this level prepares employees to recognize an incident or hazard, initiate the organization’s incident response plan, call for help and evacuate. Employees must be made aware and become educated about the chemicals or hazards they handle and their potential impact.

  1. Operations Level

At this level, employees are trained to act defensively at the hazmat incident. They are instructed to lessen the impact of the incident, while still avoiding direct contact with the hazard. This could include remotely closing off valves or creating a blockage or dam if the material is headed towards contact with water supply. This is the level of training required by first responders. At this level, employees are also trained and given access to basic protective equipment (such as splash suits and respirators).

  1. Technician Level

Requiring roughly 24-40 hours of training, including classroom and hands-on tasks, this level instructs employees how to offensively act towards a hazmat incident. Based on the situation and level of exposure, Technician Level training also assigns more sophisticated protective equipment (such as gas-tight “hazmat suits” that include a self-contained breathing apparatus).

  1. Specialist Level

This is the top level of HAZWOPER training. Training at this level designates individuals in specific areas related to hazmat and hazmat response as specialists in that area. Areas of expertise and specialty can fall under chemical, containment or transportation methods. For example, you could receive specialist training in Hydrogen fluoride or training in train car transportation.

Training is based on need. Scott highly recommends comprehensive internal evaluation as well as expert consultation. Scott and the team at Pearl Engineering can help ensure your staff is properly educated and trained to handle hazardous incidents and help design an organizational plan that is current, compatible and effective.

For questions or inquiries, contact Scott at