OSHA Withdraws Glycol Ethers, TB Rulemakings

Jan. 5, 2004
A decline in both the production and use of ethylene glycol ethers and their acetates has prompted OSHA to terminate rulemaking. The agency announced also that it is withdrawing its 1997 proposal on tuberculosis, saying respiratory protection for the disease will be enhanced through the use of the general industry standard.

Of the decision to terminate the rulemaking for ethylene glycol ethers, Assistant Secretary of Labor John Henshaw said that the evidence the agency has collected, including the comments it received after reopening the record last year, "indicates there is little future potential exposure to the four glycol ethers because their use has largely been phased out. Based on that evidence, we've concluded that the rule is no longer appropriate and that we can focus our resources on regulatory efforts that will have a greater impact on workplace safety and health."

OSHA proposed in 1993 to reduce permissible exposure limits for two ethylene glycol ethers (2-Methoxyethanol (2-ME) and 2-Ethoxyethanol (2-EE), and their acetates (2-MEA, 2-EEA). The substances have been commonly used in the automobile refinishing industry, as well as in construction paints, surface coatings, printing inks, and the semiconductor industry. At the time, OSHA estimated that approximately 46,000 workers were potentially exposed to the ethers and the associated risks of adverse reproductive and developmental health effects.

The agency reopened the record in August 2002, seeking comment on how the substances were being used in the workplace, including their level of production, and the industries and processes in which they were used. It has been determined that a major decline in the production of the substances is apparent and that their use in several key industry sectors has been eliminated or is in the process of being phased out.

Additionally, according to the agency, it's been shown that the limited production of the substances are in "closed systems" where employees not only have little opportunity for exposure, but those exposure levels more than 10 years ago were already at or below the permissible exposure limit in the proposal.

At the same time it made the announcement about ethylene glycol ethers, OSHA announced it has decided to withdraw its 1997 proposal on tuberculosis. The agency announced it is extending the same high level of respiratory protection to workers exposed to tuberculosis that is provided to workers throughout general industry.

"Since 1993, the number of tuberculosis cases in the United States has declined by more than 40 percent due, in large part, to the success of guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)," said OSHA Administrator John Henshaw. "This is especially true in high-risk workplaces such as hospitals where TB cases are diagnosed, treated and isolated. Given these positive results, it's appropriate to let CDC continue the successful work it is doing, and focus our resources on reducing workplace hazards that are not being addressed through other control efforts. In addition, based on our extensive review of the issues related to respiratory protection, workers exposed to tuberculosis should have the same protections as those exposed to other types of hazards in the workplace."

When the general industry respiratory protection standard was promulgated in 1998, OSHA announced that it would wait until the conclusion of the tuberculosis rulemaking to decide whether to apply that standard to workers exposed to tuberculosis or to include TB specific procedures in a tuberculosis rule. Those workers remained under a 1974 standard in the interim. Enforcement of the new requirements will be phased-in to allow affected employers to come into compliance.

OSHA published a proposed standard on Oct. 17, 1997, to control occupational exposure to tuberculosis. It was estimated at that time that a standard would protect roughly 5.3 million workers in more than 100,000 hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, correctional facilities, homeless shelters, and other work settings with a significant risk of TB infection. Since the proposal, however, a number of factors have emerged that alleviate the necessity of developing a TB-specific regulation.

In addition to the decrease in the number of TB cases nationwide, OSHA has concluded that occupational risk is lower than originally reflected because of greater implementation of TB controls and greater compliance with CDC's guidelines; and a rule would not substantially reduce the spread of TB from undiagnosed sources.

With OSHA's withdrawal of the TB proposal, the agency will begin applying the general industry respiratory protection standard for protection against the disease. New requirements include updating the facility's respirator program, complying with amended medical evaluation requirements, annual fit testing of respirators, and some training and recordkeeping provisions.

"We recognize that continued vigilance is necessary. We will enforce the respiratory protection standard and other relevant requirements when employers fail to protect their workers against TB exposure," said Henshaw. "We will continue to promote TB control through cooperative relationships with affected parties, public health experts and other government agencies and also provide guidance to workplaces where the risk of the disease may be elevated, such as Federal prisons and immigration facilities."

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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