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Chemical | Hazard communication | Workplace exposures

Limiting chemical exposures

OSHA releases online resources on chemical substitutes and voluntary exposure limits

December 1, 2013

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Calling current permissible exposure limits “antiquated” and “dangerously out of date,” OSHA administrator David Michaels unveiled two web-based resources he said will help companies keep workers safer around chemicals.

“Hazardous chemical exposure is a serious concern for countless employers and workers,” Michaels said during an Oct. 24 press conference. “American workers use thousands of chemicals every day – and every year, tens of thousands are made sick or die from occupational exposure to hazardous chemicals.”

Current OSHA PELs “do not adequately protect workers,” Michaels said. Many PELs have not been updated in 40 years, and for numerous other chemicals, no OSHA PEL exists. Complicating the problem is OSHA’s lengthy rulemaking process and legal barriers that prevent the agency from updating more than one PEL at a time.

Michaels said the agency needs a new way to approach the problem of hazardous substances, and claims the new resources could address that by providing better worker protection information to employers more quickly.

One resource is a toolkit offering a step-by-step guide to employers on transitioning to safer chemical substitutes. Eliminating hazardous chemicals or replacing them with safer alternatives is the most efficient and effective way to protect workers from dangerous exposures, Michaels said.

Transitioning to safer chemicals can lead to improved worker health and safety, reduced costs, compliance with laws and regulations, and safer products for consumers and the environment, according to OSHA.

The second resource is an annotated PEL table that lists for employers the voluntary limits from other organizations. Included in the table are NIOSH’s recommended exposure limits, the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists’ threshold limit values and permissible exposure limits from the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

These non-OSHA limits were selected for inclusion in the table because of their wide availability, Michaels said, adding that OSHA is open to suggestions on including additional organizations’ limits.

Often stronger than OSHA’s PELs, these limits are entirely voluntary for most employers in the country, with the exception of Cal/OSHA PELs as they pertain to California employers. OSHA compiled these limits in one place to make it easier for employers that wish to voluntarily adopt newer, more protective exposure limits.

“We will continue to update PELs, but workers and employers can’t wait,” Michaels said. “They need to get the best information and the newest information to ensure workers are protected. And this is a way to begin to do that.”

No change to enforcement

During the press conference, Michaels repeatedly stressed that although OSHA encourages employers to use the new resources, the tools do not change OSHA’s approach to enforcement.

The announcement is part of a larger initiative OSHA is undergoing to refocus its efforts on reducing chemical exposure hazards, Michaels said. Some groups are encouraged by the move, including the American Industrial Hygiene Association. For years, the Falls Church, VA-based group has been pushing the agency to do more about chemical exposure and outdated PELs.

“Updating the PELs has been the No. 1 public policy issue for the association since the mid-1990s and, for the first time, we are seeing some real movement from the government sector on this issue,” AIHA President Barbara J. Dawson said in a press release. “AIHA encourages employers, workers and other interested parties to look closely at OSHA’s list of alternate exposure limits because they will bring us closer to updating the PELs.”

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