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OSHA's Hex Chrome Proposal Draws Fire From Two Sides

One of OSHA's few major regulatory efforts -- rulemaking for occupational exposure to hexavalent chromium (HC) -- aroused criticism from both industry and labor groups during the first day of public hearings on the proposal, held yesterday in Washington, D.C.

"It's the general feasibility for some of our folks that is the biggest issue," said Chris Tampio, director of employment policy for the National Association of Manufacturers. For example, the standard would make it very difficult for the Boeing Corp. to paint its planes because HC is present in paint, Tampio explained in an interview during a break in the hearing.

"I think industry is going to be gunning for this standard, based on the line-up of witnesses," commented Scott Nelson in an interview. Nelson is an attorney for Public Citizen, a public interest organization whose successful lawsuit against OSHA compelled the agency to issue the standard. The hearing's agenda includes a long list of industry trade associations expected to testify.

Public Citizen and labor representatives attacked OSHA's decision to exempt the construction and shipyard sectors from several key provisions of the standard that apply to general industry.

For example, the following provisions apply to general industry but not to construction and shipyards:

  • Employee exposure monitoring;
  • An action level at half the permissible exposure limit (PEL);
  • Establishment of regulated areas when exposures may be expected to exceed the PEL;
  • Medical surveillance for workers exposed above the HC PEL for 30 days.

Peter Lurie, deputy director of the health research group for Public Citizen, asked the OSHA panel responsible for the HC proposal why the medical surveillance requirements differed for workers in construction and shipyards.

"Can you explain that to me?" he asked. "Same exposure, same risk, same chemical, different medical surveillance -- why would that be?"

Amanda Edens, a member of OSHA's standards and guidance directorate, explained that medical surveillance would ultimately require employers to conduct exposure monitoring for an individual worker. "We're trying to relieve [employers] of that burden," she said.

OSHA estimates that 1 million workers are regularly exposed to HC, a substance widely used in the chemical industry in pigments, metal plating and chemical synthesis as ingredients and catalysts. The chemical also can be produced when welding on stainless steel.

OSHA has proposed to lower the PEL from 52 to 1 microgram per cubic meter of air (1 µg/m3) as an 8-hour time-weighted average.

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