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Is It Time to Abandon the PEL Approach to Occupational Exposures?


By Kevin Guth

Let's face it: Our regulatory process to protect the health of workers is broken. This point is so obvious it has become axiomatic in the industrial hygiene and safety profession. All regulated industries are aware of this problem. Former Occupational Safety and Heallth Administrator Dr. David Michaels summed this point up quite well in a 2016 interview, in which he discussed permissible exposure limits:

Many of these PELs are dangerously out of date and do not adequately protect workers. Past efforts to update our PELs have largely been unsuccessful. Since 1971, OSHA has successfully established or updated PELs for only about 30 chemicals.

Dr. Michaels' comments should serve as a wake-up call.

We Have Been Here Before

In reading the various positions in favor and against OSHA’s recent construction beryllium rule, I felt a strange case of déjà vu overcome me. Every time a chemical agent is proposed for a new health standard, the slow, tedious path—in most cases, a road to nowhere—begins.

It’s famously been said that one definition of “insanity” is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. That is what continues to happen with the OSHA rulemaking on chemical substances: OSHA follows a prescribed set of mandated procedures, and in the end, after considerable time and effort given by some well-educated professionals, the result is little progress in updating the PELs. Although OSHA is aware of the problem, the agency nonetheless trudges through the regulatory quicksand at a snail’s pace, unable to overcome this ineffectual process.

Rulemaking Process

Realizing changes need to be made, OSHA issued a request for information in 2014 to solicit feedback from interested parties on ways the agency could improve the process—albeit within the prescribed regulatory framework. OSHA is not the sole party to blame for the current state of the PELs. There are many regulatory hurdles they must overcome.

Courtesy of the author

There is an immediate need to protect workers from chemical over-exposures, and there are some viable alternatives out there that are worth exploring and considering for adoption. 

Judging by the success OSHA has had to date following these procedures, there appears to be no easy fix, at least not on the regulatory side of the equation. Take, for example, the case of the formaldehyde standard. According to Randy Rabinowitz, a recognized legal expert on OSHA standard-setting, due to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs' involvement in the rulemaking process, “… It took six years and a lawsuit before OSHA issued a formaldehyde standard.”1 Chemicals enter the marketplace every year without an occupational exposure limit being established. OSHA simply cannot keep up.

Time for a Change

Former UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden was quoted as saying, "Failure isn't fatal, but failure to change might be.” In the case of protecting worker’s health, we know OSHA has failed to update the PELs, but we in the industry can help provide solutions that do not require regulatory mandate.

OSHA is going nowhere fast regarding protecting worker health, no matter how well-intentioned. Our industry will have to lead the way.

Non-Occupational Exposure Level (OEL) Approach

While OSHA sorts through the comments they received to their 2014 PELs RFI, there is an immediate need to protect workers from chemical over-exposures.

There are some viable alternatives out there that are worth exploring and considering for adoption. The ANSI A10.49-2015 standard on Control of Chemical Health Hazards in Construction and Demolition Operations is a worthy candidate. This standard is a non-occupational exposure level approach. The American Industrial Hygeine Association references this ANSI standard in their response to OSHA’s PEL RFI.

OSHA needs to require a risk assessment process whereby companies, using the information obtained from the chemical Safety Data Sheets (SDS) in conjunction with knowledge of how the chemicals will be used (exposure conditions) can do a simple risk assessment and develop control strategies

The framework established in ANSI A.10.49-2015 allows a company to do what the AIHA suggested in the above-cited recommendation to OSHA. The principles espoused in this critical ANSI standard could provide a necessary foundation for much-needed change in how we in the industry protect employees from chemical exposures.

We as an industry should aspire to go beyond meeting OSHA's minimum requirements to protect worker health. OSHA’s rulemaking process is flawed—no matter how well intended. Innovative approaches are needed. Given the changing political winds in Washington, do not expect to see any substantive changes anytime soon. That is no excuse to sit back and do nothing about this situation. Adopting a non-OEL approach could allow for immediate, significant impact on reducing employee exposures to chemicals in the workplace.

1.) "Time Takes its Toll: Delay in OSHA’s Standard Setting Process and the Impact on Worker Safety," Senate, 112th Cong. 1 (2012) (testimony of Randy Rabinowitz). Retrieved from


Kevin Guth

Kevin serves as the Principal for KGC Environmental Services Inc. and is an Assistant Professor at the University of South Florida (College of Public Health- Center for Environmental and Occupational Risk Analysis and Management). For the past 26 years he has provided senior oversight and management of KGC’s most complex industrial hygiene and hazardous waste management projects. Kevin holds a Doctorate in Public Health (Specialty: Industrial Hygiene and Chemical Risk Assessment and Toxicology) from the University of South Florida. He is a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) and certified Project Management Professional (PMP).



Tagged categories: Containment; Environmental Protection; hazardous materials; Hazardous waste; Health & Safety; Health and safety; Industrial Hygienists; Air quality; NA; North America; OSHA; Permissible exposure limits; Regulations

Comment from Michael Halliwell, (11/8/2017, 11:59 AM)

Thanks Kevin. It's too bad the funding, bureaucracy and special interest groups have hog-tied the OSHA. After an inkling that a change is needed, it takes time to get the science to back it up. Once they have scientific justification, it has to go through the bureaucracy (a decade wait if the next administration doesn't automatically quash it), comment period and review. Then, once brought in, you get the legal challenges from special interest groups that tie the change up in legal proceedings for another 5-10 years. I don't see an easy way to make it better within the current system.

Comment from WAN MOHAMAD NOR WAN ABDUL RAHMAN, (11/13/2017, 1:59 AM)

It all depends on how we value human lives. Is it just as a cashcow or to give better lives for each and everybody in this temporary world. Well the debate goes on.

Comment from Thomas Enger, (11/15/2017, 9:52 AM)

OSHA, like all governmental organizations are political, and is influenced by the market place and those politicians in power who are influenced by the market. As a result does an unremarkable job in controlling workplace safety. It is underfunded and understaffed. However, when employers and manufacturers look at the lost associated with Worker Compensation Claims and third party liability lawsuits tendered to manufacturers of the products they use, the industry should be incentivized to push for a stronger agency to enforce safety in the workplace. Professionals with experience in the Abrasive Blasting Industry understand all dust is harmful and to quibble over which is more harmful waste our time and places our workers at risk to contract debilitating lung diseases. A true Process Hazard Analysis would quantify the exposure and subsequent risk to not only the Abrasive Blasting workers, but the bystanders who are often simply ignored during the blasting operation. The regulations already require a Job Hazard Analysis to be performed when using PPE. Because OSHA does not have the resources to enforce these standard, I suggest to the insurance industry, they require their policy holders produce these Job Hazard Analysis during their workplace inspections. We need to make worker safety a business decision and rely less on Governmental Agencies to enforce existing workplace regulations or even better existing consensus standards.

Comment from Michael Halliwell, (11/16/2017, 11:20 AM)

Thomas, I like your way of thinking...but insurance will never go for it. The moment they have standards and policies, they will get more claims and that will affect their bottom line. Insurance is not in the business of protecting people...they are in the business of making money for their stakeholders and only paying out when they absolutely, no-way-to-possibly-avoid-it-offer-the-lowest-settlement-possible-to-make-it-go-away, have to. An independent agency with the power of government, funding by government and industry, and buy-in from government, industry and workers would be the penultimate version of OSHA...but it will not happen. Government is controlled by special interest groups, politics and greed; too many companies in industry are purely profit driven (killing or injuring workers is a cost of doing's cheaper to pay out than to do it right in the first place) and too many workers are either uneducated/uninformed about safety or are too cowed by the companies they work for (especially low wage / illegal immigrants / entry level positions) to take a stand. There are good companies and good workers out there...but far too few to "get the job done" at this point.

Comment from Bob Dahlstrom, (11/17/2017, 3:09 PM)

The hierarchy of hazard controls starts with completely eliminating hazards and risks by engineering them out and away from the workplace. Robotic and other systems offer the ability to "move workers from harm's way" - while this is not always not practicable or feasible however one should look at implementing it whenever possible.

Comment from Thomas Enger, (12/6/2018, 7:04 AM)

For any aspect of Safety to be effective, it must be integrated into the process. The practitioner needs to use the same skills and techniques in analyzing hazards as they do the manufacturability or the robustness of a process. Safety is not First, it is integral to the process. The safety professional must use analytical tools such as FMEAs, Fish bones, Root Cause Analysis in consultation with good engineering practices such as ANSI, NFPA, IBC etc. to intergrade safeguards into the process for the employee and public. A compliance driven program is a failure from the start, it waits till the process is developed than adds on the safety requirements, forcing an inefficient process and the incentives to ignore the added safety requirements. OSHA regulations and guidelines are great, but they are one of many tools to be used in the protection of the worker. Safety must be an equal partner on the team, but we as professionals must be prepared to compete with not only regulatory and consensus standards expertise, but process driven knowledge so we can be solution providers and not roadblocks.

Comment from Ricardo Avila, (1/16/2019, 7:08 AM)

What about use SODA blasting and avoid all the issues with environment control? A. H. SODA has nice equipment and many sizes to work acoordingly.

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