The Occupational Safety & Health Administration is conducting a comprehensive review of hundreds of chemical Permissible Exposure Limits that the agency says are dangerously outdated.
The review could lead to lower, or even first-time, PELs for hundreds of chemicals. The impact could reverberate throughout the paint and coatings industry, where scores of chemicals are already subject to PELs and new health risks from workplace chemical exposures are being reported almost daily.
"Many of our permissible exposure limits are based on 1950s-era science that we now realize is inadequate to protect workers in 21st-century workplaces," Dr. David Michaels, OSHA Administrator, has said. "We must assure the protection of workers currently exposed to well-recognized chemical hazards for which we have an inadequate PEL or no PEL at all.”
OSHA sets enforceable Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) to protect workers against the health effects of exposure to hazardous substances. PELs are regulatory limits on the amount or concentration of a substance in the air. They may also contain a skin designation. OSHA PELs are based on an 8-hour time weighted average (TWA) exposure.
Permissible exposure limits (PELs) are addressed in specific standards for the general industry, shipyard employment, and the construction industry. Many of the regulated chemicals are used in the paint and coatings and related industries, including toluene, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, lead and methylene chloride.
Most PELs Unchanged
During its first two years of existence, OSHA established approximately 400 PELs for hazardous chemicals based on then-existing national consensus or federal standards. Since then, OSHA has been able to develop more protective regulations for only 29 chemicals, while the majority of OSHA PELs have remained unchanged.
Currently, the agency has established PELs for about 500 chemicals. Most have remained unchanged even though health data indicate many chemicals pose hazards to workers at levels below those permitted by many of OSHA's PELs, the agency says.
Today, more than 2,000 chemical substances are suspected of being harmful to workers, OSHA has said. These include potential carcinogens, mutagens, reprotoxins, neurotoxins, and other extremely dangerous chemicals, Yet, OSHA has only limited regulatory tools to control these “suspected” harmful materials, the agency notes.
Illnesses and Injuries
The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that workers suffered more than 55,000 illnesses related to chemical exposures in 2007, and nearly 17,500 chemical-related injuries and illnesses resulted in workers spending days away from work.
This is likely an underestimate, OSHA said, because often the effects of chemical exposures are frequently not recognized until years after exposure. As a result, work-related disease often goes unreported since a worker or physician may not attribute the effect to an exposure that occurred on the job many years before.
In August, OSHA conducted a two-week Web forum to seek nominations on the chemicals of most concern and received more than 130 nominations for OSHA to focus its initial efforts. The daunting—some say impossible—nature of OSHA’s task was made immediately clear by the comments, some of which include scores of chemicals for consideration and proposals for complete workplace bans on cigarette smoking, Hexavalent Chromium and other substances, including many used in the paint and coatings industry.
Further complicating the prospect is the fact that 25 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have OSHA-approved State Plans with their own standards and enforcement policies. While many of these standards and enforcement policies are identical to those of federal OSHA, some are not.
Using those nominations, input from the OSHA field, and other preliminary information, OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health will work together on an exercise to categorize the chemicals in a draft list according to their toxic characteristics.
Michaels updated the status of the PEL review in a panel discussion Nov. 8 in Denver at the American Public Health Association's annual meeting. The agency has promised a final list of chemicals soon on which chemicals will become the focus of the agency’s review effort.