From steel mills to hospitals, from construction sites to nail salons, hazardous chemical exposure is a serious concern for countless employers and workers in many, many industries, in every part of this nation.
Many people think that the workplace exposure standards set by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration protect workers from the more hazardous of these chemicals, but the truth is that, for many of these chemicals, OSHA’s standards are out-of-date or inadequately protective. Even more, many chemicals are not covered by a specific OSHA regulation.
We recognize this and are developing new ways to approach the problem of workplace exposure to hazardous substances.
To help keep workers safe, OSHA recently launched two new chemical safety resources. The Transitioning to Safer Chemicals Online Toolkit provides employers and workers with information, methods, tools and guidance in eliminating hazardous chemicals or using safer chemical substitutions in the workplace. We know that the most efficient and effective way to protect workers from hazardous chemicals is by eliminating or replacing these chemicals with safer alternatives, and this should be done whenever possible. The online toolkit is a convenient, step-by-step guide to using informed substitution in the workplace.
Companies have already transitioned to safer chemicals and have seen positive results: reduced costs and reduced risk to workers. For instance, AlphaGary Corporation developed lead-free plastic compounds that reduced risk to workers handling lead-based materials, streamlining the product certification process and in turn enhancing the company’s competitive global supply position. Seattle City Light, one of the nation’s largest municipally-owned electric utilities, has transitioned to preferred products in a variety of applications, including substituting potentially harmful electrodes used in steel shop welding operations with safer ones containing lanthanum. This reduced worker exposures and met the performance needs of the operation without significantly increasing costs.
The agency also published the Annotated Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) Table to help employers voluntarily adopt newer, more protective workplace exposure limits. OSHA’s Permissible Exposure Limits, or PELs, are the maximum workplace exposure permitted under our regulations.
The intent of PELs is to protect workers from the health effects of hazardous chemicals. Unfortunately, most of our PELS were adopted more than 40 years ago and new scientific data, industrial experience and developments in technology clearly indicate that, in many instances, these mandatory limits are not sufficiently protective of worker health. So while we will continue to enforce these mandatory PELs, these new tables offer a better, more up-to-date resource on safe exposure limits.
I advise employers who want to ensure that their workplaces are safe and their workers are protected, 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. The annotated tables provide side by side comparisons of OSHA PELs with recommended exposure limits of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists—as well as the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health’s required PELs.
You can find both of these new resources at OSHA.gov.
Workers use chemicals to produce goods that we all rely on and that play a valuable role in the economy. For many hazardous chemicals, there are safer alternatives which can eliminate the risk of illness. OSHA is working to ensure that employers and employees have ample information on chemical exposure limits and procedures to consider as they look for safer alternatives to dangerous chemicals. Together, we are working for healthier workers, safer workplaces, and a stronger America.
Dr. David Michaels is the assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health.