OSHA Issues New Chrome Rule, Critics Unsatisfied

OSHA's long-awaited standard for occupational exposure to hexavalent chromium will lower the permissible exposure limit (PEL) from 52 to 5 micrograms per cubic meter of air as an 8-hour, time-weighted average.

At a conference call held for reporters Feb. 27, Jonathan L. Snare, acting assistant secretary for OSHA, said that the PEL limit of 5 is the lowest level that is technologically and economically feasible for industries impacted by this rule based on evidence in the rulemaking. The reason, he said, was because some industries, such as in welding, were not able to do their job if they had to meet a PEL standard that was lower than 5.

"OSHA has worked hard to produce a final standard that substantially reduces the significant health risks for employees to hexavalent chromium," said Snare. "Our new standard protects workers to the extent feasible, while providing employers, especially small employers, adequate time to transition to the requirements."

The new rule, which OSHA issued as a result of a court-imposed deadline, is a large reduction from the old standard, but it is also at a level that is five times higher than what had been proposed 2 years ago.

The final standard is published in the Feb. 28 Federal Register. The standard covers occupational exposure to hexavalent chromium in general industry and shipyards.

Due to the nature of the work, the aerospace painting industry will be set up with a different standard of 25 micrograms per cubic meter, Snare said. The workers are required to wear respirators when handling the chemical.

The standard includes provisions relating to preferred methods for controlling exposures, respiratory protection, proactive work clothing and equipment, hygiene areas and practices, medical surveillance, hazard communication and record keeping.

Snare said these provisions were added to the standard as the lowered PEL limit for hex chromium did not completely eliminate the health risks involved.

"We understand and acknowledge that there is still significant risk and that this new standard does not completely eliminate the risk," Snare said.

The new standard, which would cost the industry $282 million a year to implement, would result in 40-145 avoided cancer cases a year among the workers currently exposed to airborne levels of hexavalent chromium of more than 5 micrograms. OSHA also estimated that the 5-microgram standard would result in 10 to 45 additional lung cancers per 1,000 workers exposed during a lifetime. This is in comparison to the 105-351 excess cancer cases per 1,000 workers, which was projected for the 52-microgram standard. If the standard had been lowered to a 1 microgram standard as proposed 2 years ago, the excess lung cancer rate would have 2.1 to 9.1 per 1,000 workers.

Critic: New Rule Not Adequate

Peter Lurie, deputy director of Public Citizen the organization that sued OSHA to force them to issue a new standard told OccupationalHazards.com that this was why the new standard is still inadequate to protect American workers exposed to the carcinogen.

"Hundreds of extra lung cancer deaths will occur if the weak OSHA-proposed standard is allowed to stand," he said.

Public Citizen petitioned OSHA to issue a standard of .25 micrograms, which Lurie said is an adequate enough to ensure worker safety. He said a majority of chromium-exposed workers approximately 88 percent work at sites already compliant with OSHA's new standard.

"Even if there were a small number of industries not complying with the new standard, the best approach would be not to raise the standard for everyone, but to have exceptions if it were really not technologically and economically feasible for them," said Lurie.

Lurie said Public Citizen will bring OSHA back to court in the next couple of days as he feels that resultant rule was very weak in light of the fact that OSHA had not issued a chemical health standard since 1997.

The standard, according to Snare, is published in accord with the timetable established by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The effective date of the final rule is May 30, 2006, 90 days from the date of publication. The general compliance start-up date for employers with more than 20 employees to comply with specific provisions is scheduled for Nov.27, 2006. Employers with fewer than 20 employees may start to comply May 30, 2007.

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