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October 28, 2013
OSHA addresses outdated exposure limits with online tools, annotated PEL tables

OSHA has developed new tools to help employers safeguard workers from exposure to hazardous levels of chemicals. Keep reading to learn what the agency is doing—and what you can do—to eliminate preventable illnesses and fatalities.

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The problem is that permissible exposure limits (PELs) for many chemicals are “dangerously out of date, dating from the 1970s or even earlier and do not adequately protect workers,” according to OSHA Chief Dr. David Michaels. In a press conference, Michaels explained that the rulemaking process is complex and makes it difficult to keep chemical regulations updated.

In response, the agency has developed two strategies for dealing with the PEL problem. Both are available online at no charge. The first is a toolkit to identify safer chemicals that can be used in place of more hazardous ones. The content walks employers and employees through information, methods, tools, and guidance to either eliminate hazardous chemicals or make informed substitutions.

OSHA also announced a second new online resource, known as the Annotated Permissible Exposure Limits (or annotated PEL) tables. Its purpose is to enable employers to voluntarily adopt newer, more protective workplace exposure limits than those required by OSHA.

The revised tables provide a side-by-side comparison of OSHA PELs for general industry to NIOSH recommended exposure limits (RELs), California OSHA PELs, and threshold limit values (TLVs) developed by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists. For many chemicals, the alternate exposure limits listed in the annotated PEL tables are significantly lower than OSHA’s PELs. For example, while respirable quartz, a form of crystalline silica, has an OSHA PEL of 10 milligrams per cubic meter (mg/m3), Cal/OSHA’s PEL is 0.1 mg/m3, and NIOSH’s REL is 0.05 mg/m3. OSHA currently has a proposal to cut its PEL for silica in half, but even its proposed lower PEL would be higher than the alternate exposure limits listed in the annotated PEL tables.

Added Michaels, “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.”

Following OSHA’s chemical standards isn’t enough

Avoiding chemical exposures is critically important. According to OSHA, workers suffer more than 190,000 illnesses and 50,000 deaths each year related to chemical exposures. Workplace exposures have been linked to cancers and other lung, kidney, skin, heart, stomach, brain, nerve, and reproductive diseases.

Establishing a chemical management system that goes beyond compliance with OSHA standards and aims to reduce or eliminate hazards at the source is the best way to protect workers. The agency says that using the new tools will add value in several ways, including:

  • Cost savings by reducing expenses and future risks;
  • Efficiency by improving performance;
  • Industry leadership through investment in innovation to stay competitive; and
  • Corporate stewardship by advancing socially responsible practices.
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