By Michael Wood
Oregon OSHA Administrator
No one who follows workplace health and safety issues can remain unaware of the "problem with the PELs" - the permissible exposure limits adopted and enforced by both federal and state OSHA programs. Federal OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels has been paying particular attention to the problem in his recent public comments and appearances, including a video chat he sent out a few months ago.
The basic problem is simple - many of the PELs are badly out of date. It is not just that they have not been updated in 40 years. The real problem is that the science on which many of them were based has simply left those old levels behind. We know so much more about the health effects of many of these substances - and again and again we have learned that the levels that may have seemed appropriate decades ago were simply higher than we should reasonably accept. Yet those are the regulatory limits on the books.
To the practitioners "in the trenches," one of the challenges of these out-of-date PELs shows up when some carelessly describe exposures that do not violate the law as "safe levels" of exposure. That's inaccurate even with fully up-to-date PELs, of course. Like most of our rules, the PELs represent a minimum standard, not best practice. Exposures below the PEL should never be thought of as "safe." But the problem is made considerably worse when the PELs are as out of date as many are today.
Consultants - whether government or private sector - and in-house health and safety professionals can and should rely upon publications by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the American Conference of Government Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) when assessing exposures and recommending remedial measures. But the presence of those resources does not solve the problem of regulatory limits that are out of date and often do not even reflect the full range of health challenges a substance can present.
Here in Oregon, we cannot easily tackle the entire problem. We simply do not have the resources. But we are in the early stages of an effort to narrow down the list of out-of-date PELs in our codes, with an eye toward tackling those that are either most disconnected from current science or that are likely to have the greatest impact in the workplace. We will, of course, be engaging with employer and worker representatives, as well as industrial hygienists and others outside Oregon OSHA. And we will be looking to the guidance provided by NIOSH and ACGIH.
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