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Washington Update: OSHA takes a step forward on PELs

September 1, 2012

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By Kyle W. Morrison

Permissible exposure limits have two major problems.

First, they’re old. Most of the PELs that OSHA currently enforces were established in the early days of the agency, and many are based on voluntary limits established years earlier by other advocacy groups.

Second, they can’t easily be updated. More than 20 years ago, OSHA tried to update hundreds of PELs at once, but the courts shot down that attempt. Now the agency must update PELs one at a time by using the same time-consuming process every proposed regulation must go through.

These problems are nothing new. Unfortunately, no one has figured out a way to solve them. That may be changing, however.

In a June presentation before the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, OSHA administrator David Michaels noted that many stakeholders agree workplace chemical exposure limits need to be updated. At press time, OSHA was in the process of developing a Request for Information to seek input from stakeholders on how OSHA can best address the issue. The RFI was expected either in late summer or early fall of this year, Michaels said.

Separately, OSHA is developing an annotated PEL table for its website with several different exposure limits listed in one spot. Many organizations and agencies have stronger exposure limits than OSHA that employers can voluntarily follow. This table would act as a type of repository, sharing with employers a variety of limits that may better protect workers – NIOSH’s recommended exposure limits, the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists’ threshold limit values and Cal/OSHA’s PELs.

“This is the most positive thing we’ve seen come out of the federal government addressing this issue in probably 20 years,” Aaron Trippler said. Trippler is the director of government affairs at the American Industrial Hygiene Association, a Falls Church, VA-based group that has long advocated updating PELs.

The recent announcements by OSHA suggest to Trippler that the federal government recognizes the problem and knows something must be done to address it. He said the first, best step in addressing the issue is bringing all the stakeholders together, and the RFI may indicate this is where OSHA is headed.

By getting various stakeholders together – from industry representatives to union representatives – OSHA can receive help in figuring out the problems. As a group, they can examine the science and learn what limits would be the most effective for a variety of hazards, and OSHA could then turn those into legal limits.

However, because of court rulings that say each PEL must be taken up individually, the process would still be very prescriptive and limiting regarding how quickly OSHA could enact changes, even if broad agreements exist. “I don’t think OSHA has the time or the resources to address every PEL, and it just doesn’t make sense anymore,” Trippler said.

The best way to solve the PEL problem – and what could likely be the consensus of such a stakeholder discussion, Trippler speculated – is legislative action. Congress will need to pass laws changing the process to allow the agency to more easily update old PELs and promulgate new ones for hazardous substances.

Given the volatile partisan climate on Capitol Hill right now, this option may not be possible. Still, hope exists.

Just as global pressure helped speed up OSHA’s update to its Hazard Communication Standard to include provisions from the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals, pressure from an increasingly global economy could help convince leaders to make the necessary changes regarding PELs.

The opinions expressed in “Washington Update” do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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