OSHA Proposes New Workplace Exposure Limits for Hundreds of Chemicals
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Federal regulators on Tuesday proposed reducing workplace exposure limits for 234 toxic chemicals and bringing 168 others under government regulation in what was called the largest action of its type ever taken.
In making the announcement, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration estimated the proposed regulations would reduce job-related fatalities among some 17 million workers now exposed to the chemicals by 500 a year and illnesses by another 55,000 annually from cancer, respiratory, cardiovascular and liver and kidney diseases.
Approximately 3.6 million workers are now exposed to concentrations of the chemicals above the proposed new ceilings, OSHA officials said. They estimated the cost to industry of meeting the new standards at $900 million a year.
″This is a 20-year technological leap that brings the country’s basic occupational health regulations up to date,″ said John A. Pendgergrass, who is OSHA administrator and assistant labor secretary. ″The project is the most significant workplace exposure action taken by OSHA in its 17-year history.″
The OSHA plan calls for reduced exposure limits for widely used chemicals such as chloroform, carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, ammonia and trichlorethylene.
Employers would be required to meet the new standards six months after the final regulations are approved.
OSHA officials said immediate compliance with most of the proposed standards could be achieved through the use of personal respirators. However, they added that they agency envisions requiring the adoption of more expensive engineering controls such as ventilation systems within four years.
Pendergrass said approval of the regulations could come as early as next November.
″There’s a widespread consensus that many of these chemicals are among the most hazardous,″ he said. ″We expect to have support from management, labor, the health and safety professional communities and our companion agencies in the federal government.
However, Pendergrass acknowledged there is likely to be opposition to many of the changes in hearings that the agency has to conduct on the 400-page proposal and possible court challenges later.
″We don’t do anything with the expectation of being sued,″ he said. ″However, I will admit we have almost a perfect record (at being sued).″
The proposal sets limits on a total of 428 chemicals. It lowers the limits on 234 substances already subject to federal regulation and sets exposure ceilings for the first time on 168 other chemicals.
Current exposure limits would be reaffirmed for 25 more chemicals, and a 10-fold increase in the exposure limit would be allowed for one - fluorine - based on recent data, the agency said.
OSHA has been criticized widely by both labor and management for not having updated its exposure ceilings before. Its attempts at it on a substance-by- substance approach, such as with asbestos and benzene, in many cases have been met with extensive court challenges by business or labor groups.
″History clearly demonstrates that this substance-by-substance procedure cannot keep pace with the scientific development in occupational health nor with the introductions of new chemicals and chemical compounds into the workplace,″ Pendergrass said.
The agency estimates they’re are now more than 550,000 potentially toxic chemicals and chemical compounds in the workplace.
Most of the current federal exposure limits are based on 1968 consensus standards established by the American National Standards Institute for threshold values established by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists.
Since then, the ACGIH and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have updated the threshold values or recommended exposure limits on many of the chemicals, but the changes have not been reflected in OSHA regulations.
Unions have opposed some of the methodology used by the ACGIH in setting its threshold values, which have been adopted voluntarily by many companies even though they are not required by law.
Diane Factor, an industrial hygienist for the AFL-CIO, complained that OSHA’s proposal does not go far enough and does not cover maritime, construction and agriculture workers.
″The proposal delays improved protections for four more years, allowing employers to force workers to wear respirators instead of requiring employers to immediately reduce exposures,″ she said.
Randy Schumacher, director of health and safety for the Chemical Manufacturers Association, said his group supports OSHA’s approach but added that he anticipates challenges from specific companies or unions to some of the changes.
″There will probably be a view from some businesses that they’ve gone too low while labor will complain that they haven’t looked at all the literature,″ Schumacher said. ″But I think there will be a sizable number for which there will be no challenge.″
Pendergrass said most of the proposed new ceilings are based on 1987-88 data provided by the ACGIH with backup from the NIOSH, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services.
The NIOSH recommended exposure limits actually are lower than the proposed new ceilings in many cases. But unlike the ACGIH limits, NIOSH does not consider feasiblity in its recommendations on permissible exposures.
″Our view is that half a loaf is better than no loaf, and we’ve had no loaf in 20 years,″ Schumacher said. ″The world has turned a little bit since 1968 in terms of scientific information. This is a good one-time approach but OSHA needs some kind of mechanism that allows this to occur on a more routine basis.″