Web Date: October 25, 2013
Federal regulators are asking employers to voluntarily boost safeguards for workers exposed to hazardous chemicals. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration warns that many current federal limits on chemical exposure in the workplace are insufficient.
OSHA launched an initiative on Oct. 24 that offers guidance to businesses about substituting safer substances for more hazardous substances and sets voluntary exposure limits for hazardous chemicals to levels lower than federal standards. By taking such action, the agency says, companies will reduce worker illness and death that could result from OSHA’s outdated permissible exposure limits (PELs) for chemicals. Most of those federal limits date back to the 1970s.
“Many of OSHA’s chemical standards are not adequately protective,” says David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health. “Simply complying with OSHA’s antiquated PELs will not guarantee that workers will be safe.” OSHA updated hundreds of its chemical limits simultaneously in 1989, but a federal court struck them down in 1992 and reinstated the original ones. The ruling left the agency to modernize PELs one at a time through a cumbersome process. Most remain unchanged.
To help businesses improve protections for workers in the face of this situation, OSHA unveiled a new website to help employers make informed decisions about switching away from hazardous substances. “The most efficient and effective way to protect workers from hazardous chemicals is by eliminating or replacing those chemicals with safer alternatives whenever possible,” Michaels says.
However, the American Chemistry Council, an association of chemical manufacturers, is unhappy about OSHA’s emphasis on chemical substitution. Alternative chemical assessments should be part of a comprehensive analysis that ensures that other workplace safety efforts, including standards for managing the safety of industrial processes, aren’t adversely affected, ACC says.
As part of the initiative, OSHA is also offering a second website with guidance to employers opting to voluntarily set workplace exposure standards that are tighter than federal PELs. Many large companies already have limits more protective than federal requirements, and these are often spelled out in union contracts, points out Jim Frederick, assistant director of health, safety, and environment for the United Steelworkers, an industrial labor union.
On this second website, OSHA compares its workplace chemical exposure standards against the more up-to-date limits set by California or recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health—part of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention—and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists. ACC says OSHA should allow companies to supply additional information to the website that they have developed on occupational exposure limits for specific chemicals.
Frederick of United Steelworkers, which represents a majority of unionized workers in the chemical industry, says OSHA’s two new websites will be particularly helpful for smaller companies. Larger companies have more resources to invest in chemical substitution analyses and research into protective exposure levels, he says.
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