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Employers Asked to Cut Chemical Risks

Friday, November 1, 2013

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Conceding that its own rules no longer adequately protect workers, federal regulators are giving employers new resources to do the job themselves.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration hopes the new tools will encourage companies to close the safety gap by voluntarily identifying safer chemicals and adopting more protective exposure limits for hazardous chemicals.

In releasing the tools last week, OSHA openly admitted that its own chemical standards were antiquated and ineffective.

Workers suffer more than 190,000 illnesses and 50,000 deaths annually related to chemical exposures, according to OSHA.

And yet, "complying with OSHA's antiquated [Permissible Exposure Limits] will not guarantee that workers will be safe," Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, said in a press release.

He added, in a video presentation, "New chemicals are being developed faster than their safety can be evaluated."

'Out of Date'

The agency says its exposure standards are "out of date" and "inadequately protective" for the small number of chemicals that are regulated in the workplace.

chemical hazards
© iStock / endopack

Calling its own standards obsolete, OSHA released new resources to help companies protect workers from hazardous chemicals by substituting safer chemicals and reducing exposure limits.

The Chemical Safety Improvement Act of 2013 (CSIA – S.1009), now before Congress, would provide the first comprehensive update to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), but OSHA is not waiting for action.

The bill has support from both environmentalists and the business community, including paint and coating manufacturers, but similar bills have failed in the past, and implementation could be years away.

OSHA's two new resources—one that identifies safer substitutions for hazardous chemicals and one that illustrates more protective Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs)—are designed to help employers take action to protect their workers now.

"There is no question that many of OSHA's chemical standards are not adequately protective," said Michaels.

Safer Chemical Choices

OSHA's first new resource is a toolkit to help employers identify safer substitutions for hazardous chemicals they use. "Transitioning to Safer Chemicals" walks employers and workers through information, methods, tools and guidance to either eliminate hazardous chemicals or make an informed substitution decision. Workers can also use the toolkit to better understand chemical use and find opportunities to use safer chemicals.

"We know that the most efficient and effective way to protect workers from hazardous chemicals is by eliminating or replacing those chemicals with safer alternatives whenever possible," Michaels said.

Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, introduced new web resources to help employers voluntarily reduce worker exposure to hazardous chemicals.

The toolkit provides a seven-step plan for substituting chemicals:

  • Form a team to develop a plan;
  • Examine current chemical use;
  • Identify alternatives;
  • Assess and compare alternatives;
  • Select a safer alternative;
  • Pilot the alternative; and
  • Implement and evaluate the alternative.

Transitioning to safer chemicals can also save companies money, OSHA says.

Recent years have seen new international, federal and state regulations that require manufacturers, importers and distributors to disclose more information about chemicals throughout the supply chain, avoid certain chemicals, and implement safer chemicals where feasible.

Additional laws and regulations are on the horizon, OSHA says. The cost of not complying with existing laws or preparing for future ones can be substantial.

Side-by-Side PEL Comparisons

The second new resource, the "Permissible Exposure Limits—Annotated Tables," provides a side-by-side comparison of OSHA's PELs for general industry to PELs from the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA), recommended exposure limits by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and threshold limit values from the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists.

The tables list air concentration limits, but do not include notations for skin absorption or sensitization.

Annotated OSHA Z-2 Table
Annotated OSHA Z-2 Table

OSHA's new tables show the difference between the decades-old federal Permissible Exposure Limits for the solvents toluene and trichloroethylene and more current limits by other agencies. OSHA hopes that enlightening employers to current limits will encourage them to reduce exposures voluntarily.

"I advise employers, who want to ensure that their workplaces are safe, to utilize the occupational exposure limits on these annotated tables, since simply complying with OSHA's antiquated PELs will not guarantee that workers will be safe," said Michaels.

OSHA notes that many of its PELs were issued shortly after the adoption of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970 and have not been updated.

PEL comparison tables will allow employers to voluntarily adopt newer, more protective workplace exposure limits, OSHA says.

Meanwhile, OSHA will continue to enforce its own mandatory PELs.

   

Tagged categories: Accidents; Construction chemicals; Fatalities; hazardous materials; Health and safety; Industrial Hygienists; NIOSH; OSHA; Workers

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