LEARNING OBJECTIVE: Recognize hazardous material personal safety guidelines and hazardous material information sources.

Hazardous materials are substances with the potential of harming people or the environment. Hazardous materials can be gaseous, liquid, or solid, and can include chemical or radioactive materials. (Radiological exposure will be covered in depth in chapter 8 of this manual. Radioactive materials are regulated by specific instructions/directives.) The most common substances involved in incidents of hazardous material (HAZMAT) exposure are volatile organic compounds, pesticides, ammonia, chlorine, petroleum products, and acids.

Your initial action at the scene of a hazardous materials incident must be to assess the situation, since your safety—as well as that of the public and any patients—is of primary concern. You must first determine the nature of the HAZMAT, then establish a safety zone. Only after these things have been accomplished can a victim who has been exposed to hazardous materials be rescued, transported to an appropriate facility, and properly decontaminated.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) publication, Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG series, published every four years), RSPA P5800.8, is a useful tool for first responders during the initial phase of a hazardous materials/dangerous goods incident. ERG series addresses labeling, identification, toxicity, safety/contamination zones, and decontamination procedures. IT IS IMPERATIVE THAT ALL PERSONNEL INVOLVED WITH HAZMAT INCIDENT RESPONSE BE FAMILIAR WITH THIS PUBLICATION. It is also available on the Internet.


When an incident involving the exposure of hazardous material occurs, it is of prime importance to any rescue operation to determine the nature of the substance(s) involved. All facilities that produce HAZMAT are required by law to prominently display this information, as is any vehicle transporting it. Any carton or box containing such material must also beproperly labeled. The name of the substance may also be displayed, along with a required four-digit identification number (sometimes preceded by the letters UN or NA).

The various kinds of hazardous materials usually have different labels to assist in their identification. These are generally diamond-shaped signs that have specific colors to identify the type of HAZMAT involved. Table 5-7 provides a list of the Department of Transportation (DOT)-mandated classifications of hazardous materials.

Table 5-7.—Hazardous Materials Warning Labels

HAZMAT Type Label Description
Explosives solid orange color
Nonflammable gases solid green color
Flammable liquids solid red color
Flammable solids white and red stripes
Oxidizers & peroxides solid yellow color
Poisons & biohazards solid white color
Radioactive materials half white/half yellow with
black radiation symbol
Corrosives half white/half black
Other usually white

Toxicity Levels

The ERG series provides a list of hazardous materials and appropriate emergency response actions. The Guidebook is primarily a tool to enable first responders to quickly identify the specific or generic classification of the material(s) involved in the incident, and to protect themselves and the general public during the initial phase of the incident.


Your first objective should be to try to read the labels and identification numbers FROM A DISTANCE. If necessary, use binoculars. DO NOT go into the area unless you are absolutely certain that has been no hazardous spill. Relay any and all information available to your dispatch center where it can be used to identify the HAZMAT.

Once the HAZMAT has been identified, it can be classified as to the danger it presents (i.e., toxicity level). Based on this classification, the appropriate specialized equipment (known as personal protective equipment, or PPE) can be determined to provide adequate protection (i.e., protection level) from secondary contamination to rescue personnel and healthcare providers.

Figure 5-7.—NFPA 704 labeling system.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has developed a system for indicating the health, flammability, and reactivity hazards of chemicals. It is called the NFPA 704 Labeling System and is made up of symbols arranged in squares to comprise a diamond-shaped label (fig. 5-7). Each of the four hazards is indicated by a different colored square:

The health hazard levels are

Protection Levels

The protection levels, B, C, and D—indicate the type and amount of protective equipment required in a given hazardous circumstance, with level A being the most hazardous.

You are required to wear gloves at all four protection levels. If the correct type of glove to be used is not known, use neoprene or rubber, and avoid using latex or vinyl. In any instance, contact with HAZMAT should be avoided or minimized, and proper decontamination should be performed promptly. Protect feet from contact with chemical by using a disposable boot/shoe cover made from appropriate material.

Site Control

For management purposes, site control is divided up into three sections.

Figure 5-8 shows the three management sections of a hazard zone.

Figure 5-8.—Hazard zone management sections