OSHA first vowed to update the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for the chemical almost nine years ago, after a formal petition by Public Citizen, a citizen advocacy group, and the Paper Allied-Industrial Chemical and Energy International Union (PACE). The two groups are currently suing the agency for its failure to live up to this aging promise.
"The health risks associated with occupational exposure to hexavalent chromium are serious and demand serious attention," said OSHA Administrator John Henshaw. "We are committed to developing a rule that ensures proper protection to safeguard workers who deal with hexavalent chromium."
"I take this as a positive sign," commented Scott Nelson, an attorney handling the case for Public Citizen. But Nelson has no plans to drop the lawsuit, noting that the agency has not spelled out the timing of the rulemaking.
"In our lawsuit we're seeking an order that imposes time requirements on OSHA, so they would have to go a little further to have a major impact on the litigation," he said.
At the same time, Nelson believes that the agency's decision to move ahead with regulation may be due not only to the evidence that the existing PEL for the chemical is out of date. OSHA may also have concluded it could lose in federal court.
Hexavalent chromium is most commonly used as a structural and anti-corrosive element in the production of stainless steel, iron and steel, and in electroplating, welding and painting, according to OSHA. Exposures to the metal have been associated with lung cancer, asthma and dermatitis.
OSHA's current general industry standard sets a PEL for hexavalent chromium compounds at 100 micrograms per cubic meter as a ceiling concentration; the standard for construction is 100 micrograms per cubic meter as an 8-hour time-weighted average.
In their lawsuit, Public Citizen and PACE urged the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit to compel OSHA to issue a proposed PEL of 0.5 micrograms per cubic meter for the substance within 60 days.
Public Citizen says the lawsuit is more focused on the timing of the new rule than its content, as federal courts are likely to defer to OSHA on what an appropriate PEL would be.
"We will continue to argue that OSHA should move faster," said Nelson.