Safer Chemical Management: Can OSHA Regulate Exposures Without PELs?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has published permissible exposure limits (PELs) for about 500 chemicals—and most of those PELs have not been updated since 1971. In the intervening four 4 decades, the number of chemicals used in the United States has exploded and, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) inventory, more than 85,000 chemical substances are manufactured or processed in the United States today.

As a result, OSHA’s PELs provide a poor standard for protecting workers, offer out-of-date exposure limits for most of the chemicals that are included, and fail to offer regulatory limits for many dangerous chemicals. So, OSHA is looking at other possible ways to limit workers’ exposure to hazardous chemicals.

New Approaches to Chemical Management

Yesterday we looked at OSHA’s proposed “tiered approach” to risk assessment, which is intended to make the process of setting acceptable PELs faster and cheaper. But OSHA is also looking at other possible strategies for managing chemical exposures in the workplace, including:

  • Hazard banding. Under the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, the hazards of individual chemicals are not just identified; they are also characterized in terms of severity of the effect or weight of evidence for the effect. So, each chemical will have both a “hazard class” and a “hazard category.” OSHA is considering using these hazard classes and categories as a basis for establishing exposure protections (either regulatory or in guidance documents) for entire groups of chemicals rather than for individual substances. There have been a number of similar attempts to establish control strategies for hazardous exposures for categories of chemicals—rather than individual substances—under various names, including “health hazard banding,” “occupational exposure banding,” and “control banding.” The details vary, but the idea is the same. What’s new is that OSHA has proposed using it as a regulatory approach to chemical exposure control.

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  • Task-based approaches. Like a job hazard analysis, task-based assessment and control of chemical exposure hazards categorizes a given task or job activity in terms of exposure potential and identifies specific actions to control the exposure. Those actions would be implemented regardless of occupational exposure limits. In other words, rather than (or possibly in addition to) a chemical-specific standard (in the form of a PEL), employers would be subject to a task-based performance standard for protecting workers from hazardous chemical exposures. OSHA points to its standards for lead and asbestos in construction as examples of how such a standard could work.

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  • Informed substitution. Rather than simply limiting workers’ exposure to hazardous chemicals, OSHA has expressed a desire to approach chemical management in a way that encourages employers to identify and transition to safer chemicals, products, and processes. The agency points out that in some cases, regulating one hazardous chemical has simply led employers to transition to other chemicals that turned out to be even more dangerous. So, rather than simply setting “substitution” as a goal, OSHA has proposed that the process of “informed substitution” would involve a deliberate effort on the part of OSHA, employers, and other agencies to identify safer alternatives to hazardous chemicals.

Each of these approaches is under consideration as a method for regulating workers’ exposures to hazardous chemicals without having to establish individual PELs.

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