How to define a hazardous material

You have probably heard of the term ‘’hazardous’’ – especially in phrases ‘’hazardous chemical’’, ‘’hazardous material’’, hazardous substance’’ or ‘’hazardous waste’’. Also, you probably know the meaning of the term given by the standard dictionary – ‘’hazardous’’ is an adjective used to describe something dangerous or risky. But what does it mean from a regulatory standpoint? Are all of these phrases representing the same thing? The short answer is no, or rather, it depends on whom you ask. While each of the expressions describes something potentially dangerous, according to the regulatory definitions, the term hazardous used in the phrases above doesn’t always have the same meaning.

Definition of ‘’Hazardous’’

From the regulatory standpoint, the definition of hazardous varies. It depends on which regulation or regulatory body we are speaking of. Generally, every country or region around the globe has its definition of the term ‘’hazardous’’, given in their respective local regulations. But due to international treaties, like UN Transport of dangerous goods model regulations, many countries which sign the treaty then transpose the model regulations into their national legislation framework giving it somewhat of a harmonised approach. For example, in the EU, the definition of the term hazardous depends on legislation such as REACH and CLP, Biocide product regulation (BPR), Waste Framework Directive (WFD), international Transport of Dangerous Goods regulations such as ADR, ADN, IMDG, IATA, etc. This article will focus on the US legislation to better illustrate different definitions and their connection with the local legislation. Still, you should keep in mind that other countries and regions have more often than not implemented a similar approach. In the US, chemical substances and mixtures are regulated by various regulatory bodies or agencies. HSE personnel in the US usually works with four main federal regulatory agencies:

  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) – OSHA was established to regulate and maintain safe and healthful working conditions. It is managed by the US Department of Labour, publishes standards, and provides training and education in the HSE field.

  • The Department of Transportation (DOT) – DOT is responsible for regulating the transportation system in the US, including the transportation of dangerous goods. 

  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – The mission of EPA is to protect human health and the environment. It protects people and the environment from significant health risks, sponsors and conducts research, and develops and enforces environmental regulations.

  • United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) - NRC is an agency created to ensure the safe use of radioactive materials for beneficial civilian purposes while protecting people and the environment. The NRC regulates nuclear materials and their use through licensing, inspection and enforcement of its requirements.

Since each of these agencies has a different purpose, it makes sense that each has its definition of hazards that support its specific mission.

OSHA’s Definition of Hazardous Materials

In their ‘’Hazard communication standard 1910.1200 Toxic and Hazardous substances’’ OSHA defines a hazardous chemical as ‘’any chemical classified as a physical hazard or a health hazard, a simple asphyxiant, combustible dust, pyrophoric gas, or hazard not otherwise classified’’. And chemical means any substance or mixture of substances. So, any substance or chemical which is hazardous to people’s health or is physically hazardous is included. This broad definition includes carcinogens, irritants, corrosives, toxic agents, sensitizers, agents that damage the respiratory tract, skin, eyes, or mucous membranes; chemicals that can combust, explode, or are flammable, oxidizers, pyrophoric, unstable-reactive or water-reactive. Additionally, they also include airborne chemicals that produce or release dust, gases, fumes, vapours, mists or smoke during normal handling, use, or storage, since these have occupational exposure limit values assigned to them. The standard requires employers to provide hazard communication training for their employees to handle hazardous chemicals.

US DOT Definition of Hazardous Materials

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) defines hazardous materials as articles or substances capable of posing a risk to health, safety, property, or the environment, are listed or classified in the regulations and are transported in commerce. This definition is given by the 49 CFR Part 171.8. Hazardous substances (i.e. corrosives, toxic and flammable substances), hazardous waste, environmentally hazardous substances, and marine pollutants all fall under this definition. They also define hazardous substances in the Hazardous Materials Table (HMT). By this definition, the amount of chemical also needs to be considered when determining if the chemical will be classified as a hazardous substance or not. This amount is called Reportable Quantity (RQ) and presents the threshold level above which the substance becomes a hazardous substance. Let’s take Methanol as an example. Methanol is a hazardous chemical material that meets the classification criteria as a flammable liquid. But under the HMT (49 CFR 172.101. appendix A), Methanol is considered a hazardous substance only if transported in quantities of 5000 pounds (or 2270 kilograms) or more.

US EPA Definition of Hazardous Materials

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines hazardous material as any 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 (40 CFR 261), all while also incorporating OSHA’s hazardous material definition. Quite a broad definition, you might say? But interestingly enough, that is not the end. EPA also uses an entire section of the regulation (40 CFR 261.3) to define hazardous waste. That definition is so complex that they end up referring to another section (40 CFR part 262) to wrap it around. But it does not end there. What if you need to transport the hazardous waste? Well, now you also need to comply with all the applicable requirements in the U.S. DOT regulations.

US NRC Definition of Hazardous Materials

Finally, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) defines hazardous materials as materials that produce ionising radiation. This includes radioactive substances and other special nuclear materials, waste, or by-products that emit ionising radiation. Again, if you need to transport the radioactive materials, don’t forget to consult with the DOT regulations!

It’s a given that each governmental body has different definitions, as they have various jurisdictions and responsibilities. The way they treat hazardous products is also different but connected in some ways, as we have seen above. Managing hazardous materials is quite complex and requires the right expertise. Your experts should be given the right tools and competence to help you tackle these challenges in achieving hazardous materials compliance.

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