OSHA says its permissible exposure limits for dozens of hazardous chemicals are out of date, but these days, it’s difficult to update its regulations. Does a recent fine against a fiberglass manufacturer signal OSHA’s way to get around this problem?
The Wall Street Journal reports OSHA has used its General Duty Clause to fine Fiberdome in Lake Mills, WI, for allowing worker exposure to airborne concentrations of styrene above recommended exposure limits.
Note the word “recommended.”
The styrene concentrations in the plant were below OSHA’s permissible exposure limits (PELs). But they’re above what is now considered the safe exposure limit by other groups, including one from the Styrene Information & Research Center that is half of OSHA’s PEL.
OSHA said it inspected Fiberdome after receiving a referral alleging workers were experiencing respiratory irritation due to chemical exposure.
The WSJ reports a worker at the fiberglass factory was hospitalized last year with his lungs inflamed by exposure to styrene.
His doctor and lawyer contacted OSHA. OSHA has issued $49,500 in fines for one repeat, seven serious and two other-than-serious violations.
OSHA used the General Duty Clause (GDC) to issue the serious citation for exposing workers to styrene.
The WSJ says David Champeny, an inmate at a prison near the plant, had to be taken to a hospital after working in the plant for just a few days as part of a work program.
Doctors at the University of Wisconsin Hospital recognized Champeny’s symptoms as those that affected another inmate who worked at the Fiberdome plant under the program. Both had acute shortness of breath and inflammation.
Champeny was hospitalized with respiratory bronchitis due to exposure to fumes. Doctors said he shouldn’t return to the same work environment.
OSHA had fined Fiberdome previously for issues related to styrene.
‘No pattern here’
OSHA chief David Michaels said the Fiberdome fines aren’t indicative of any pattern, according to The WSJ. It’s not unusual for fines issued under the GDC to be appealed and subsequently to turn into expensive legal battles for OSHA.
That doesn’t stop the agency from using the GDC. In a typical year, somewhat more than 1,000 OSHA inspections result in fines for a GDC violation.
OSHA’s action in the Fiberdome case matches one possibility for future chemical exposure enforcement raised by Matt Shudtz, a policy analyst, on ProgressiveReform.org. In a recent post, Shudtz speculated OSHA could now use the GDC for “a new wave of enforcement” using the voluntary PELs OSHA listed on its website in October. OSHA has also published a list of substitute chemicals for those that are hazardous to health.
Do you think OSHA is testing the waters with the Fiberdome case? Join the conversation in the comments below.