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With New Web Resources, OSHA Acknowledges that its Chemical Exposure Limits Don't Protect Workers

Oct. 24, 2013
The agency's new table of recommended exposure limits highlights "the fact that OSHA's PELs are out of date and many of them are inadequately protective," OSHA Administrator David Michaels said.

Most of OSHA's permissible exposure limits for hazardous chemicals were issued shortly after the agency's inception in 1970. Given the challenge of updating those standards via the agency's complex rulemaking process, OSHA is taking a creative approach to protecting workers from exposure to hazardous substances.

The agency on Thursday unveiled two new web resources: one designed to help employers and workers identify safer chemical substitutes, and the other compiling the PELs recommended by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

In a conference call, OSHA Administrator David Michaels asserted that the new web resources are "calling attention to the fact that OSHA's PELs are out of date and many of them are inadequately protective."

"Unfortunately most of our PELs were adopted more than 40 years ago, and new scientific data, industrial experience and developments in technology clearly indicate that in many instances, these mandatory limits are not sufficiently protective of worker health," Michaels told journalists and others on the call.

It only takes a quick glance at OSHA's new annotated tables of PELs to illustrate his point.

For example: The OSHA PEL for acetonitrile is 40 parts per million; the NIOSH and ACGIH PEL for acetonitrile is 20 ppm.

The OSHA PEL for toluene is 200 ppm on an eight-hour time-weighted basis; the NIOSH exposure limit for toluene is 100 ppm, and the ACGIH exposure limit for toluene is 20 ppm.

"I advise employers who want to ensure that their workplaces are safe and their workers are protected to utilize the occupational exposure limits on these annotated tables," Michael said.

"Simply complying with OSHA's antiquated PELs will not guarantee that workers will be safe."

The annotated tables feature side-by-side comparisons of the PELs, threshold-limit values and biological exposure indices issued by OSHA, Cal/OSHA, NIOSH and ACGIH. While the agency sees those four comparisons as a logical place to start, Michael added that OSHA is open to including exposure-limit recommendations from other organizations in the future.

Michaels emphasized that the new web pages will not affect the agency's enforcement policies or inspection criteria.

"These are tools that we're putting out, not new regulations," he said.

He noted that many employers already follow the best practices and recommendations listed on the new web pages.

"We're asking employers to begin by looking at the website and transitioning to safer chemicals," Michaels said. "We've provided a number of very concrete steps that they can use to identify whether there are hazardous chemicals that can be substituted and showing them how to choose the proper substitute."

The two new web resources are "Transitioning to Safer Chemicals: A Toolkit for Employers and Workers" and "Permissible Exposure Limits – Annotated Tables."


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