OSHA Seeks Hazardous Chemical Management Changes Updated March 18, 2015: Agency extends deadline to Oct. 9, 2015, to consider updates to permissible exposure limits

By Roy Maurer Oct 16, 2014

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has extended the deadline for public comment on strategies for managing chemical hazards in the workplace and approaches to updating chemical permissible exposure limits (PELs).

The new deadline is Oct. 9, 2015. OSHA extended its original deadline of April 15, 2015 after receiving multiple requests from stakeholders who wanted more time to research and formulate esponses to questions included in the agency's request for information.

“We need your help preventing occupational illnesses caused by hazardous chemicals,” said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, in a proposed rule announcement, published Oct. 10, 2014. 

“Many OSHA PELs are out-of-date and they’re not adequate for ensuring protection of worker health. So, we are asking you, the public, to submit your ideas for how we can more effectively reduce chemical exposures in the workplace. We are particularly interested in your ideas about how we may improve current processes,” he said.

Streamlining PEL Rulemaking

Ninety-five percent of OSHA’s current PELs—regulatory limits on the amount or concentration of a substance in the air—have not been updated since their adoption in 1971, according to the agency. And OSHA’s current PELs cover only a small fraction of the chemicals being used today. OSHA has occupational exposure limits for only about 470 substances out of the approximately 8,300 chemicals being used in commerce in significant amounts, according to the American Chemistry Council.

Michaels said, during a press conference, that OSHA’s process for updating PELs is insufficient, describing the process as “extremely time- and resource-intensive.” Complex analyses, including economic and technical feasibility studies that often take years to complete, are required to issue new exposure limits or update existing workplace exposure limits.

Although OSHA has attempted to update its PELs, the agency has not been successful, except for the issuance of a few substance-specific health standard rulemakings, such as for lead and asbestos. “There’s got to be a better way. If we go chemical by chemical, it’ll take us centuries,” Michaels said.

Updating the agency’s outdated PELs has been a priority for industrial hygiene professional associations and safety advocacy organizations for years.

“Updating the PELs has been, and remains, the No. 1 public policy issue for our members,” said American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) President-elect Daniel H. Anna. “We will continue to do everything possible to see that the problem of outdated PELs is addressed by OSHA and the federal government.”

OSHA has released a toolkit to help employers and workers identify and substitute safer chemicals to use in place of more hazardous ones, and developed an annotated occupational exposure limits table that provides up-to-date chemical information for employers who wish to voluntarily adopt newer, more protective workplace exposure limits.

Alternative Approaches to Chemical Management

Michaels added that although OSHA has historically relied on developing and enforcing PELs to protect workers from exposure to hazardous chemicals, new strategies are needed to supplement PELs. Toward this goal, OSHA is exploring a number of “more flexible, scientifically accepted approaches that may streamline the risk-assessment process and increase the capacity to address a greater number of chemicals,” including:

  • A tiered approach to exposure-response assessment that will enable the agency to establish acceptable PELs for larger numbers of workplace chemicals.
  • Chemical grouping approaches to expedite the risk assessment process.
  • Toxicity testing and other emerging test data to calculate risk.
  • Alternative approaches to judging economic and technical feasibility that might involve less time and fewer resources.
  • Opportunities to incorporate nonregulatory “informed substitution”—the considered transition from a potentially hazardous chemical, material, product or process to a safer chemical or nonchemical alternatives—as part of workplace chemical management.
  • Banding chemicals together either through similar toxicity, occupational exposure danger, task-based exposure, or through control measures such as dilution ventilation, engineering controls or containment.

The comment period for the request for information will last until April 8, 2015. For more information, visit the OSHA Chemical Management Request for Information Web page.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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