ASSE Speaks Up about Hexavalent Chromium

Dec. 4, 2002
The American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) President Mark Hansen, PE, CSP, has responded to OSHA's request for information (RFI) on possible steps to take to address the health affects of hexavalent chromium on American workers.

In his letter to OSHA, Hansen commented on current usage of hexavalent chromium and said he hopes OSHA will address the heavy metal either through revised permissible exposure limits (PELs) or other actions that can minimize exposure to hexavalent chromium in the workplace.

"U.S. industry has used chromium for more than 100 years, and today chromium is a primary contaminant at over half of all Superfund hazardous waste sites," wrote Hansen.

Hansen noted that it has been 80 years since researchers first observed that workers in the German chrome ore industry developed lung cancer more frequently than the rest of the population. Since then, many studies have shown that people who work around industrial processes using chromium have higher-than-normal rates of cancers.

In its comments, ASSE noted that it recognizes the necessity of lowering the existing PELs for hexavalent chromium but has not made a determination as to what level would be appropriate. However, ASSE notes that as many as 34 percent of workers could contract lung cancer if exposed to the metal at OSHA's current exposure limit for eight hours a day for 45 years, according to a study conducted for OSHA in 1995.

In addition to the long-term health effects and carcinogenicity of this substance, dermatological problems are common among construction and cement industry workers exposed to hexavalent chromium through handling of materials containing the chemical, Hansen wrote. Therefore, although many of the scientific findings relate to occupational illnesses among the ferrous metals and welding trades, OSHA should not overlook the impact of such exposures in the construction industry when determining its regulatory path, Hansen wrote.

ASSE is urging OSHA to take appropriate interim actions to provide worker protections until the agency determines whether and how to revise the PELs and until any new standards can take effect.

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