The head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) appealed to employers to voluntarily adopt new chemical exposure limits and use just-released agency resources to better protect workers from hazardous chemicals.
In an Oct. 24, 2013, news conference remarkable for its candor, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels said that it has become nearly impossible for the agency to update its chemical safety regulations, and that the current federal limits on the amount of hazardous chemicals that workers can be exposed to are “decades out of date.”
Michaels said tens of thousands of workers become ill or die from occupational exposure to hazardous chemicals every year.
“There is no question that many of OSHA’s chemical standards are not adequately protective,” Michaels said. “The complexity of OSHA’s current rulemaking process makes it extremely difficult for us to update our chemical safety standards and issue new standards in a reasonable period of time,” he said. He added that “simply complying with OSHA’s antiquated permissible exposure limits will not guarantee that workers will be safe.”
The agency created two new web resources: a toolkit designed to help employers and workers identify safer chemical substitutes, and a compilation of annotated PELs to better protect workers.
The toolkit provides step-by-step instructions for employers and workers on the methods, tools and guidance to either eliminate hazardous chemicals or make informed substitution decisions in the workplace by finding a safer chemical, material, product or process, according to OSHA.
“We know that the most efficient and effective way to protect workers from hazardous chemicals is by eliminating or replacing those chemicals with safer alternatives whenever possible,” said Michaels.
OSHA also created Annotated Permissible Exposure Limits tables, which provide a side-by-side comparison of OSHA PELs for general industry to the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health PELs, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommended exposure limits, and American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienist threshold limits. These limits are often lower than OSHA’s.
“I advise employers who want to ensure that their workplaces are safe and their workers are protected to utilize the occupational exposure limits on these annotated tables,” Michaels said.
He emphasized that OSHA will continue to enforce the current mandatory PELs and that the new web resources will not alter the agency’s enforcement policies or inspection criteria. They are purely informational.
American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) President Barbara J. Dawson, applauded the agency’s action. “Updating the PELs has been the number one 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 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,” Dawson said in a press statement.
“We will continue to update PELs, but workers and employers can’t wait,” Michaels stressed. “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.”
Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
Follow him on Twitter @SHRMRoy.
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