U.S. Plans New Look at Worker Exposures


Unable to keep up with the risks posed by tens of thousands of chemicals now in use in the workplace, U.S. regulators are casting about for a new approach.

At issue: How can the U.S. protect worker health and safety amid all those chemicals when the conventional rulemaking process, which has focused on one substance at a time, clearly will not work?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has announced a broad initiative to answer that question.

Fewer than 500 hazardous substances in the workplace carry official Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs), which regulate the amount or concentration of a substance in the air.

Moreover, 95 percent of the PELs now in effect have not been updated since they were set in 1971, according to OSHA. That list includes asbestos, beryllium, benzene, cadmium, chromium, lead,  methylene chloride, silica and toluene.

Request for Information

Thus, the agency has announced a "national dialogue" with stakeholders on ways to prevent work-related illness and injury caused by exposure to hazardous substances.

Step One: a Request for Information on Chemical Management and Permissible Exposure Limits.

"OSHA is reviewing its overall approach to managing chemical exposures in the workplace and seeks stakeholder input about more effective and efficient approaches that addresses challenges found with the current regulatory approach," says the RFI, published Friday (Oct. 10) in the Federal Register.

Methylene Chloride AsbestosCleanup911
CDC (left); askingthedoc.com (right)

U.S. workers are exposed to tens of thousands of chemicals. Fewer than 500 hazardous substances have Permissible Exposure Limits. They include methylene chloride (left) and asbestos (right). Most PELs are obsolete.

"This review involves considering issues related to updating permissible exposure limits (PELs), as well as examining other strategies that could be implemented to address workplace conditions where workers are exposed to chemicals."

'Dangerously Out of Date'

“Many of our chemical exposure standards are dangerously out of date and do not adequately protect workers,” said Dr. David Michaels, the OSHA administrator.

“While we will continue to work on updating our workplace exposure limits, we are asking public health experts, chemical manufacturers, employers, unions and others committed to preventing workplace illnesses to help us identify new approaches to address chemical hazards.”

In 1989, OSHA attempted to update or set new PELS for more than 350 chemicals in a single rulemaking. Although the agency presented analyses of the risks associated with these chemicals, as well as the feasibility and economic impacts, the analyses were not as detailed as those for individual rulemakings. The entire rulemaking was ultimately vacated by the court.

PELs have been established or updated for only about 30 chemicals since 1971.

USMC / Cpl. Rubin J. Tan

Workers suffer more than 190,000 illnesses and 50,000 deaths annually related to chemical exposures, according to OSHA.

Workers suffer more than 190,000 illnesses and 50,000 deaths annually related to chemical exposures, according to OSHA.

New Strategies Needed

OSHA is seeking public comment regarding current practices and future methods for updating PELs, as well as new strategies for protecting workers from hazardous chemical exposures.

Specifically, the agency requests input on:

  • Streamlined approaches for risk assessment and feasibility analyses; and
  • Alternative approaches for managing chemical exposures.

Alternative approaches may include control banding, task-based approaches, and informed substitution. The economic feasibility of the options is part of the RFI.

"The goal of this public dialogue is to give stakeholders a forum to develop innovative, effective approaches to improve the health of workers in the United States," OSHA said.

Control Banding FederalRegister
NIOSH (left): OSHA (right)

OSHA is seeking new approaches to protecting workers from hazardous exposures, including alternative approaches like control banding (left) and streamlined risk assessment analyses.

Additional opportunities for public input will be announced in the coming months, the agency said.

'A Step Forward'

Announcement of the review draw praise from the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), a longtime proponent of greater chemical protection for workers.

“Updating the PELs has been, and remains, the number one public policy issue for our members,” said AIHA President-elect Daniel H. Anna, PhD, CIH, CSP.

“The publication of this RFI marks a step forward for AIHA and other stakeholders who have long pushed for this update. We will continue to do everything possible to see that the problem of outdated PELs is addressed by OSHA and the federal government.”

How to Comment

The RFI is concerned primarily with chemicals that cause adverse health effects from long-term occupational exposure, and is not related to activities being conducted under Executive Order 13650, "Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security."

The deadline for comments is April 8, 2015. Comments may be mailed, faxed or submitted electronically.

Instructions for submitting comments are available in the Federal Register, Docket No. OSHA-2012-0023. For more information, visit the OSHA Chemical Management Request for Information Web page.


Tagged categories: Asbestos; Construction chemicals; Good Technical Practice; hazardous materials; Lead; Methylene chloride; North America; OSHA; Paint Removal; Regulations; Silica

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