OSHA unveils web-based tools to protect workers from toxic chemical exposure.

Last week, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced two new web-based resources to help employers better protect workers from hazardous chemical exposures, even as the agency said its current mandatory workplace exposure limits are “dangerously out of date.” According to OSHA, hazardous chemicals are estimated to be the cause of more than 190,000 illnesses and 50,000 deaths suffered by workers each year.

The first resource is a toolkit for identifying less-hazardous chemical substitutes. It provides information, methods, tools and guidance to “either eliminate hazardous chemicals or make informed substitution decisions in the workplace by finding a safer chemical, material, product or process.” The second resource includes three annotated Permissible Exposure Limit tables (PELs) that provide side by side comparisons of OSHA PELs with recommended exposure limits from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists and the required PELs of California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

Most of OSHA’s PELs were adopted in the early 1970s and based on scientific research from the 1940s through 1960s. Since then, OSHA has initiated and finalized just one new PEL [PDF] in 2006 as part of a comprehensive standard for hexavalent chromium exposure. In the meantime, non-governmental organizations have continued to update their own occupational exposure limits (OELs) for chemicals found in the workplace, which many employers implement voluntarily. Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, said that “the complexity of OSHA’s current rulemaking process makes it extremely difficult for us to update our chemical standards and issue new standards in a reasonable period of time.” However, the agency said it plans to start work on updating [PDF] its PELs with a request for information (RFI). These plans were delayed due to the recent federal government shutdown, but the agency expects the RFI to be published in the next couple of months.

OSHA is working closely with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ensure that when the EPA processes applications for new use of chemicals (SNUNs), they consider worker exposure. However, the agency made clear that the contents of the web resources were informational in nature and will not be used by OSHA in the enforcement process.