February 15, 2024

OSHA Proposes Emergency Response Standard with Broadened Scope

A new emergency response standard proposed by OSHA is intended to address the broad range of job hazards faced by today’s emergency responders. Elements of health and safety for these workers are currently regulated “under a patchwork of hazard-specific standards,” the agency explains in its notice of proposed rulemaking. If adopted, the standard would replace the agency’s existing fire brigades standard (29 Code of Federal Regulations 1910.156), which covers only firefighters and has received only minor updates since it was promulgated in 1980. The new proposal would also expand protections to include employees who work for employers that provide emergency services other than firefighting, such as emergency medical service providers and technical search and rescue services. Additional changes reflected in the proposed standard address updated performance specifications for protective clothing and equipment and improved safety and health practices from industry consensus standards.

Because emergency services organizations can vary significantly—for example, in size and the types of services they provide—OSHA is proposing a performance-based standard, which the agency says will allow employers to establish the criteria that best fit their organization.

“The proposed rule focuses on the achievement of desired results—improving emergency responder health and safety and reducing injuries and fatalities—while providing flexibility as to the precise methods used to achieve those results,” OSHA explains in the Federal Register. “The performance-based nature of the proposed rule is particularly beneficial to small and volunteer organizations with limited resources.”

OSHA reminds stakeholders that while its standards do not apply to volunteers, volunteers may be treated as employees under some states’ laws. However, the proposed standard would cover some employers whose emergency responders are referred to as volunteers rather than employees, according to OSHA. A related discussion of the legal principles governing employment status under the Occupational and Safety Health Act appears in the Federal Register. Of the anticipated 1,054,611 workers who will fall within the scope of the proposed rule, OSHA estimates that nearly one-third will be self-identified as volunteers.

OSHA invites members of the public to submit comments on the proposed rulemaking until May 6, 2024. Further details about the comment period and the proposed rule can be found in the Federal Register and on the agency’s website.

Related: An article published in the January 2022 issue of The Synergist explains that any safety and emergency response plan must rely on an accurate assessment of the relevant emergency situation and fully address potential incidents that are present in the work environment. Read "Understanding Emergency Service Capabilities."