The reality on OSHA’s permissible exposure limits (PELs) for hazardous chemicals: Most are out of date by almost half a century. And changing them won’t be easy. So, the agency has released new voluntary limits to help protect employees.
The Annotated PEL Tables provide a side-by-side comparison of OSHA limits for general industry to these:
- PELs from the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal-OSHA)
- Recommended Exposure Limits from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and
- current Threshold Limit Values (TLVs) from the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH).
“I advise employers, who want to ensure that their workplaces are safe, to utilize the occupational exposure limits on these annotated tables,” said OSHA administrator David Michaels, “since simply complying with OSHA’s antiquated PELs will not guarantee that workers will be safe.”
Most of OSHA’s current PELs were established around the time the agency was launched in 1970. Most of the PELs were adopted from the Walsh-Healy Public Contracts Act which had been adopted from the 1968 TLVs from ACGIH.
This means looking at the new annotated tables is like comparing the science of 1968 to the science of 2013 from the same organization: ACGIH.
OSHA has also released a toolkit to help employers identify safer chemicals that can be used in place of more hazardous ones.
What should employers do?
Voluntary standards are nothing new. Various professional organizations have issued their own recommended standards for decades.
But what should companies do now that OSHA has developed the annotated tables? Besides Michaels’ statement advising companies to use the stricter limits, OSHA’s website contains the following statement:
“OSHA’s mandatory PELs in the Z-Tables remain in effect. However, OSHA recommends that employers consider using the alternative occupational exposure limits because the Agency believes that exposures above some of these alternative occupational exposure limits may be hazardous to workers, even when the exposure levels are in compliance with the relevant PELs.”
In other words: OSHA can only enforce PELs that are in its regulations. The rest is up to employers.
This is a bit of a change from the OSHA employers have come to know in the Obama administration. The current version of OSHA has proudly trumpeted its concentration on enforcement. Employer assistance, while still offered, has taken a bit of a back seat.
What changed? OSHA has been looking into methods to update its PELs and add chemicals that aren’t even covered.
But, in part due to laws passed by Congress, the process to create new regulations has bogged down to a snail’s pace. It now takes several years to enact new or update existing regulations. An example: updating OSHA’s silica standard and PEL.
Faced with the long regulatory process, not to mention the contentious atmosphere these days in Washington, DC, issuing recommendations from OSHA now looks a lots more beneficial to employees exposed to these substances than waiting for new or revised regulations.
The American Industrial Hygiene Association applauded OSHA’s efforts. Updating the PELs has been a top priority for AIHA since the mid-1990s.