Author(s): Alan Earls. Published on May 1, 2009.

NFPA 400
A five-year effort has resulted in the new NFPA 400, Hazardous Materials Code, which promises help for anyone responsible for the safe storage of
hazardous materials.

NFPA Journal®,  May/June 2009

By Alan R. Earls

In May of 1995, almost within sight of NFPA’s Massachusetts headquarters, a four-alarm fire broke out in a big-box retail store. Investigators determined that the probable culprit was a confluence of leaking swimming pool chemicals along with leaking motor oil that had been stored with new lawnmowers.

The following year, another large retailer, this time a home improvement store in Albany, Georgia, experienced a similar conflagration. The fire grew so rapidly that fire personnel were unable to contain it, resulting in the complete loss of the building and its contents. While no specific cause was ever established, the store did handle large quantities of pool chemicals, and the way they were stored and handled, along with their proximity to other materials, was thought to have contributed to the severity of the fire.

These two events underscore part of the motivation behind development of the new NFPA 400, Hazardous Materials Code—namely, the challenges posed by the volume and variety of hazardous materials that have become part of everyday commerce. Indeed, in the trucking industry, the largest single section in the Commercial Drivers License (CDL) handbook—the document that is the basis for licensing truck drivers in the U.S.—has to do with safely handling hazardous materials. For building code enforcers, businesses, and others responsible for safely storing the wide range of increasingly common hazardous materials, the challenge has been just as great. However, with no equivalent of the CDL, guidance has been hard to get and, when available, incomplete and confusing.

Now, after a five-year effort by the NFPA Committee on Hazardous Chemicals, a solution is finally emerging. According to Guy Colonna, NFPA division manager, the Committee on Hazardous Chemicals is formally proposing NFPA 400, which incorporates four preexisting documents: NFPA 430, Code for the Storage of Liquid and Solid Oxidizers; NFPA 432, Code For the Storage of Organic Peroxide Formulations; NFPA 434, Code for the Storage of Pesticides; and NFPA 490, Code for the Storage of Ammonium Nitrate.

"This is evolution, not revolution," says Colonna. "It combines existing documents without changing the specifics, but now enforcement officials can go into an occupancy and evaluate several materials by looking to one source."

Seeing a need, finding a template
According to Samuel Vanover, chair of the Committee on Hazardous Chemicals and fire inspector for the Jefferson Parish Fire Department in Kenner, Louisiana, there were compelling reasons to consolidate existing documents. "The original incentive for the new code came from the fact that NFPA documents operate on three- to five-year editing cycles, so as we would complete revisions on one document we found we had to immediately turn around and revise the others," Vanover says. "We thought by combining the basic, common information together, as we have now done in Chapters 1 through 10 of NFPA 400, we would be able to do this one time instead of four times, making a more efficient process and a better document for users."

Although NFPA 400 is the first comprehensive and unified NFPA hazardous materials code, it is nevertheless part of a series of documents with a long history. According to Vanover, the National Board of Fire Underwriters (NBFU), a predecessor of NFPA, issued its first hazardous material code in 1910—he’s quick to point out that the new code takes effect exactly a century later, in 2010 in NFPA 40, Storage and Handling of Cellulose Nitrate Film. Vanover says when he started in the field in the 1980s, the fire service had already become proactive in trying to address the challenge of hazardous materials through better training—but that was as far as things went. "When I was trained as a firefighter, I learned a lot about hazardous material fires," he says. "But later, when I went into fire prevention, I found there was no single-source document to address hazardous materials from a prevention standpoint."

Vanover says the issue always stayed in the back of his mind. Fortuitously, he ended up as chair of the Committee on Hazardous Chemicals. In the fall of 2004, at a meeting in Mesa, Arizona, the committee decided to address the difficulties of maintaining so many separate documents by trying to consolidate them into one. To that end, the committee requested permission from the Standards Council to move ahead.

"I certainly didn’t need to be sold," says Vanover. What’s more, he notes, everyone else on the committee had the same reaction: Why hasn’t this been done before?

Vanover says the Standards Council offered the 400 number, which had not previously been assigned—and since the majority of the committee’s codes were "in the 400s," he says, it made sense.

"Everyone was on board and everyone was in agreement," Vanover says. "They just didn’t know it yet."

Vanover says that most of the information that would be needed for the new NFPA 400 was already available within the existing codes, or within other NFPA documents; it was just a matter of combining it. NFPA 1, Fire Code™, already had a section that dealt with some aspects of hazardous materials. However, the committee was determined to create a stand-alone document that could grow more naturally than if it was actually included in NFPA 1 itself, which covers many other issues, such as exiting and fire department access. Still, says Vanover, NFPA 1 provided a good template for handling the general requirements, while permitting subsequent chapters to deal with specific types of chemicals. "Since NFPA 1 was the property of NFPA," he says, "we used a lot of the format and the requirements and combined that with our committee’s original documents."

Despite the wealth of existing documents and the NFPA 1 template, Vanover says crafting NFPA 400 was still a long and sometimes difficult process, one that required between 12 and 20 teleconferences each year as well as in-person meetings at least twice a year. Over time, the name changed, too, from the originally proposed Hazardous Chemicals Code to the Hazardous Materials Code. In the context within which the committee was working, the word "materials" made more sense, explains Vanover.

In addition to the general challenges posed by the process, Vanover says an assortment of larger issues also surfaced. One was the addition of Chapter 7, Emergency Planning, Fire Risk Control, and Chemical Hazard Requirements for Industrial Processes, which is all new information and deals with industrial processes. Because that chapter was new to the committee, it faced some minor resistance from some of the group’s industry representatives.

However, according to Colonna, only one individual, representing the American Chemistry Council (ACC), actually opposed the final draft language, on the grounds that the committee should only work with the material over which it already had direct control, rather than using material extracted from other sources.

As this issue of Journal was going to press, a number of NITMAMs (notice of intent to make a motion) had been filed by ACC focusing on those concerns, namely the way NFPA 400 incorporates extracted material from NFPA 55, Storage, Use, and Handling of Compressed Gases and Cryogenic Fluids in Portable and Stationary Containers, Cylinders, and Tanks, and NFPA 40.

Despite those concerns, Vanover says the majority of the committee came to believe that the goal of producing a single-source reference document was too important to give up simply because of procedural issues. Areas of disagreement will be presented for action at the Association Technical Meeting in Chicago.

Finding common ground
Robert L. James, a former Minnesota fire marshal who serves on the Committee on Hazardous Chemicals on behalf of Underwriters Laboratories, Inc., says that while NFPA 400 represents a big step forward, it’s still mere "baby steps" in terms of where the document should go.

For example, areas where NFPA has well-established documents—flammable/combustible liquids, propane, and others—were deliberately excluded from consideration for this version of NFPA 400, but will be considered for inclusion during subsequent revisions.

"As a committee we still have a ways to go," James admits. "But once we have an official starting point, in the form of NFPA 400, we will be able to get input from the whole membership, nationally and internationally," to create a larger, more comprehensive code. For now, he says, the new NFPA 400 addresses an immediate need. "Ultimately, we were able to address all the points that seemed to be in conflict," he says. "Everyone at the table knew the document had to come out and they were ready to compromise and move ahead."

Those individual concerns were balanced by a desire to develop a workable compromise, one that would also make business sense. "Industries seek uniformity in the application of codes nationwide," says Larry Fluer, a consultant who is on the committee. "They don’t want different requirements in California and Maine." He cites the example of interchangeable commercial structure design: "If you travel around the country you will see McDonalds and Home Depots, and whether you are in Washington or Georgia, the architecture isn’t peculiar to that state—it’s a national architecture." Likewise, says Fluer, industry wants to have people trained to work with one hazardous materials code because it is less costly and safer.

Indeed, the group of technical people working on NFPA 400 represented a convergence of hazardous material interests ranging from the environmental and fire safety enforcement communities to entities such as The Chlorine Institute, Inc., The Fertilizer Institute, and the American Chemistry Council. Fluer, who represented the Compressed Gas Association (CGA) on the committee, says the organization took on the task of developing NFPA 400 as a means of harmonizing requirements in conjunction with NFPA 1 and NFPA 5000®, Building Construction and Safety Code®.

Sometimes, Fluer says, the meetings became contentious. "At times we felt that compressed gases were under attack by some on the committee," he recalls, "but in the end we were satisfied with where the document was positioned."

In addition, James says, NFPA 400 represents a significant step in consolidating requirements for hazardous materials. "In the past, the fire code was used to regulate or enforce on a general basis, and there were references to many other documents," he says. The process of consolidating documents provided opportunities to improve the language, especially with regard to protection features, he says. For example, James says in the past it wasn’t always clear when hazardous material should be isolated from other areas, or when early warning systems or sprinklers should be provided. "Some documents had specific requirements and thresholds and others did not," he says. "In other words, there were holes in the past, and this document deals with them."

Likewise, says James, in the past, some documents only dealt with subjects like manufacturing or bulk storage. If you were making pool chemicals, the documents you would reference would cover manufacturing and handling very large quantities, but they wouldn’t address selling activities or storage issues at a school or hotel. The comprehensiveness of the new document should help everyone, says James. "If you are a manufacturer you might intuitively provide protection, but the steps you use aren’t documented. Someone coming into the business might not have the same feel for the process. That’s why having the manufacturing officials and chemical engineers involved in developing NFPA 400 was important—it helped fill that void."

Alan R. Earls writes on business and technology and is based in Franklin, Massachusetts.