Workers exposed to high levels of toxins in the workplace

Employees face high concentrations of hazardous chemicals in the workplace.

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The danger to public health of industrial air toxics has received a loss of press recently following the Bullseye Glass controversy. But another area of concern that often gets overlooked is the high concentrations of hazardous chemicals that employees can be exposed to in the workplace.

The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets mandatory limits for air contaminants above which workers must not be exposed. The limits are established for either an eight-hour workday or as ceiling limits that are never-to-be-exceeded maximum exposure levels.

Most of the standards, known as Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs), have not been changed for decades. By OSHA’s own admission they are badly out of date. The limits are based on research performed during the 1950s and 1960s and do not take into consideration newer research on chronic health problems occurring at lower occupational exposures.

“The main issue is that in many cases new health effects have been identified leading to the argument for lower limits,” says Michael Wood, Oregon OSHA administrator.

Wood says “several dozen” chemical exposure limits should be updated to reflect more recent health data and new technologies that can reduce exposure to workers. Some of the out-of-date standards are for chemicals that are suspected carcinogens, which can lead to “chronic conditions that under some circumstances can lead to disability, chronic respiratory conditions or cancers, or in some cases can lead to death,” says Wood.  

To give an idea of how high the maximum concentrations of chemicals are set for workers, the limits can be compared with the Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) air toxics benchmarks. The benchmarks are the DEQ’s recommended concentration levels for toxics that protect the health of sensitive populations, such as children and the elderly.  

Take cadmium, a toxic metal. Under OSHA’s regulation, no employee should be exposed to more than five micrograms of an airborne concentration of cadmium per cubic meter of air over an eight-hour shift. That is more than eight times the DEQ’s recommended safe exposure level for the toxic chemical annually.

Another example is arsenic. OSHA states employees should not be exposed to inorganic arsenic at concentrations of more than 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air over an eight-hour period. This is 50 times the DEQ’s benchmark. 

It should be noted that DEQ’s benchmarks are based on vulnerable populations that are not part of the workforce, which the OSHA regulations are designed to protect. The DEQ’s benchmarks are also health-based goals and are not enforceable like the OSHA standards.

Wood says the agency’s exposure limits are “minimum” standards and should never be described as “safe” limits.  

The majority of chemical exposure limits for workers were established in 1971 when OSHA adopted them from federal health standards originally set by the Department of Labor. Legal challenges and objections from industry have hampered OSHA’s ability to update the requirements.

To change the exposure limits, the agency is required to do lengthy and complex technical and economic feasibility studies. The federal OSHA’s review of the standard for silica, for example, took 10 years.  

Oregon OSHA is in the early stages of updating four to six hazardous chemical exposure standards. The chemicals will be chosen on the basis of how widely they are used in industry and how badly out of date the health data is for those toxins.

Wood is planning to have the updates approved in one to two years. “Some people think I am being overly ambitious,” he says. The main stumbling block is the economic feasibility study the agency will be required to do for each update. “If you do it too quickly the rule is subject to legal challenges,” says Wood.

The agency plans to make available the list of the chemicals under review by the end of the summer.