Can OSHA Update the PELs?

"There's gotta be a better way. If we go chemical by chemical, it'll take us centuries," Assistant Secretary Michaels said.

Is it possible OSHA will get something done on the thorny issue of antiquated permissible exposure limits (PELs) during Assistant Secretary Dr. David Michaels' tenure? Perhaps; the agency has published a 205-page request for information seeking stakeholder comments on how to move forward, with most of the RFI asking about a variety of approaches. During an Oct. 9 news conference, Michaels said there are thousands of unregulated chemicals being used in U.S. workplaces, and OSHA has PELs for fewer than 500 chemicals in all, "many of them dangerously out of date."

Updating the agency's outdated PELS has been a priority for industrial hygiene professional associations and safety professionals in general. OSHA was stymied years ago by a federal appeals court's decision that wiped out an effort to update many PELS in a single rulemaking. Michaels also said OSHA's process for updating PELs is broken. "There's gotta be a better way. If we go chemical by chemical, it'll take us centuries," he said.

The RFI discusses that important court case and others. It says OSHA "is particularly interested in information about how it may take advantage of newer approaches, given its legal requirements," adding, "This RFI is concerned primarily with chemicals that cause adverse health effects from long-term occupational exposure, and is not related to activities being conducted under Executive Order 13650, Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security." (The executive order directed several agencies, including DOL, to examine and find ways to improve chemical facilities security. It was issued after the West, Texas, ammonium nitrate explosion.)

Comments are due by early January. Visit www.regulations.gov and search for Docket No. OSHA 2012-0023 to submit them.

The RFI begins discussing potential alternative approaches at page 85. They include control banding, occupational exposure bands, health hazard banding, HazCom and GHS, and "informed substitution." Some EPA databases are discussed as sources of information about chemical hazards.

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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