Safety and OSHA News

Who’s better protected — workers or the general public?

Health hazards at U.S. workplaces are a “slow-motion tragedy,” according to a recent report, which found OSHA’s ability to protect workers is severely limited compared to agencies tasked with protecting the general public. 

It’s no secret OSHA’s permissible exposure limits (PELs) are outdated and aren’t always strict enough to protect workers from some hazardous chemicals and substances. Even OSHA calls them “antiquated.”

OSHA’s PELs for workers seem even more inadequate when compared to exposure limits set for the general public, according to a recent report from the Centers for Public Integrity (CPI) — the first in a series.

Limits for specific substances set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are 10 to 1,000 times more protective, according to the report.

“Risks of cancer and other illnesses considered acceptable at a workplace wouldn’t be tolerated outside of it,” the authors wrote in “Slow-motion tragedy for American workers.”

The maximum OSHA penalty for a willful violation where a worker dies is $70,000. EPA citations for hazards affecting the general public frequently start in the six figures and often run into the millions.

Here’s another way to look at the disparities between the two agencies: OSHA has 15 fewer workers than it did 30 years ago. EPA’s staff has grown by 24%.

OSHA inspections targeting health hazards are often more involved and time consuming, the report says. As a result, the agency conducts four times as many safety inspections than health inspections.

It’s a rulemaking issue as much as an enforcement one, according to the report. The current framework forces OSHA to update PELs individually through a long rulemaking process. Since the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed in 1971, OSHA has only added one chemical to its PELs. The agency tried to add 164 substances in the late ’80s, but a court overturned it.

Going beyond OSHA standards

OSHA chief David Michaels has said adhering to the agency’s PELs doesn’t guarantee workers will be protected from long-term health hazards. Industry groups are also calling on companies to use stricter PELs than what OSHA requires.

In the last few years, OSHA has updated its resources on PELs and where employers can find more information. The agency published an annotated PELs table comparing OSHA numbers to exposure limits from California OSHA and other safety groups. It also published a toolkit to help employers identify safer chemicals. At the same time, rulemaking efforts to change the way the agency sets PELs are in the early stages.

The annotated table and toolkit resources call further attention to the agency’s weak PELs, making it easier for OSHA to use its General Duty Clause to cite employers for dangerous exposure limits.

What do you think of the CPI report? Let us know in the comments section below.

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