First Things First

OSHA to publish a new emergency response rule soon

In the final weeks of 2023, the White House announced that the Department of Labor (DOL) would soon publish a new rule strengthening safety standards for emergency response personnel throughout the United States. The Occupational  Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sent the proposed rule to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) back in October to meet an anticipated February 2024 publication deadline. Now that OMB review is complete, the new rule may appear in the Federal Register before the end of January. 

The need to modernize  

The new rule will update and modernize OSHA’s “Fire Brigades” standard (1910.156) —initially published in 1980 — and cover the “full range of hazards and concerns currently facing emergency responders, and other workers providing skilled support.” OSHA is clear that the old rule doesn’t adequately reflect the significant advancements in protective clothing and equipment over the past 40+ years. The old rule also does not cover general industry, construction, nor maritime workers who respond to emergencies as part of their regular duties or only occasionally, when necessary. 

The emergency response community has also significantly outpaced the government in establishing its own safety and health practices, and another crucial reason a new rule is needed is to make OSHA — and the rest of the regulating community — more in sync with current industry consensus standards.  

Small Business Advisory Panel 

In late 2021, OSHA posted an issues document that included a summary of the proposed rule, which is now reaching its final phase of the OSHA rulemaking process. The Small Business Advisory Panel (the Panel) that OSHA assembled to comment on the “issues document” raised concerns about the cost and time commitment the standard would potentially place on small volunteer fire departments, as well as potentially causing independent industrial fire brigades to disband entirely if the proposed rule is enacted without modification. 

The Panel maintained that the greatest need in the first responder community was better road safety training. Vehicle crashes are one of the primary reasons first responders are injured or die on the job. The Panel supported cross-training opportunities with skilled support personnel but objected to the post-exposure medical evaluations that OSHA recommends.  

Broader coverage 

The new rule will cover a broad range of individuals exposed to hazards that present themselves during and after fires and other emergencies. Other than firefighters, the rule will cover emergency medical service providers, technical search and rescue workers, and many others. 

Responders are defined as “an employee or member who is, or will be, assigned to perform duties at emergency incidents.” Skilled support personnel are defined as “an employee of a skilled support employer who is skilled in certain tasks or disciplines that can support an emergency service organization, such as, but not limited to, operators of heavy-duty wrecker/rotator tow vehicles, mechanized earth moving or digging equipment, crane and hoisting equipment, healthcare professionals, and various technical experts.” 

The new rule will also require employers to perform baseline medical screenings for all first responders and will probably require continued medical surveillance if a first responder is exposed to the byproducts of fires and explosions more than 15 times each year. 

Preparing for compliance 

Once the new rule appears in the Federal Register later this month, the public can submit comments at the government’s online e-portal. Those organizations and businesses that will be affected by the new rule are encouraged to provide feedback. 

Otherwise, even though the final rule is still a year or so away, impacted organizations are advised to familiarize themselves with the specifics of the proposed rule and evaluate the potential impact on their emergency response budgets. 

If you have any questions or concerns about how this new rule could affect your organization or business — or if you have received an OSHA citation for any reason — don’t hesitate to contact Orr & Reno for assistance. 


About the author: James F. Laboe

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