Friday, May 2, 2014

OSHA works to update chemical exposure limits

Exposure to air contaminants at work has
been linked to many health problems.
In an apparent effort to kickstart agency action on updating permissible exposure limits for hundreds of chemicals, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration asked the White House April 15 to approve a request to gather information on ways to address chemical exposure.

OSHA cited widespread agreement that the majority of the agency's exposure limits are decades out-of-date and need revising.

But agency attempts have gone nowhere since a 1992 appeals court decision scuttled a blanket measure on exposure limits for nearly 400 chemicals.

The specifics of OSHA's request for information (RIN: 1218-AC74) won't be publicly available until the White House Office of Management and Budget completes its review.

Agencies typically issue formal requests for information in the context of setting up future rulemaking, but OSHA may be soliciting views on a range of alternatives.

The problem of outdated exposure limits seems to need a creative solution, given the legal, political and practical restrictions that OSHA faces.

Working on exposure limits one chemical at a time is nearly impossible given the agency's limited resources, said Aaron Trippler, director of government affairs at the American Industrial Hygiene Association.

Changing the law to update the limits and amend the process to make it easier for OSHA to update the limits moving forward is complicated by the reality of Congress actually drafting, introducing and passing legislation, Trippler said.

“That doesn't leave too many other options,” so OSHA is putting out a request for information, Trippler told Bloomberg BNA. “By chance there may be something no one has thought of to date.”

Alternatives to Rulemaking?

OSHA has tried non-regulatory efforts to mitigate the potential for worker harm that results from out-of-date exposure limits.

In October 2013, the agency launched a pair of online tools to help employers substitute safer chemicals and use more protective exposure limits on a voluntary basis.

Some employers have been using exposure limits that are more protective than OSHA's as a matter of good practice or by agreement in union contracts, Jim Frederick, United Steelworkers' assistant director for safety and health, told Bloomberg BNA.

But Frederick said OSHA-enforced limits create a level playing field for employers, since competing businesses all have to make the investments to meet the same limit, and for workers, who would be afforded the same degree of protection no matter where they work.

OSHA has permissible exposure limits for various forms of about 300 chemicals, established in 1971, that are based on science from the 1950s and 1960s. In 1989, the agency issued a rule that revised 212 existing limits and established 164 new ones. But that rule faced a legal challenge from industry, which said the limits were too stringent, and from labor, which said some were too weak.

The agency resumed enforcing the 1971 limits.

Should the agency decide to move forward with rulemaking on updating the exposure limits, it would be a long process that would probably require the commitment of whoever takes over the White House after the 2016 presidential elections. The Government Accountability Office found OSHA rulemaking took an average of more than seven years.

Source: Bloomberg This article has been edited for length.

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