By Melanie Mesaros
They are often referred to as silent killers – the chemical exposures that, over time, can make workers ill or even result in death. It can be rare to find a company taking an active approach to OSHA's Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs); however, the Owens Corning Roofing and Asphalt plant in Portland, a Voluntary Protection Plan site, is an example of a company doing just that.
"We want to minimize the amount of time employees are exposed," said Marcel Lavoie, operations leader at the plant, which supplies the paving and roofing industries with asphalt.
Lavoie said the company relies on engineering controls to keep asphalt vapors contained in a closed system. The Owens Corning plant tanks hold 7.1 million gallons of asphalt, which is heated to 300 to 450 degrees F and processed for loading onto trucks. When product sampling is done from the tanks for quality control (a process conducted multiple times a day), workers wear personal protective equipment to limit their exposure, and meters that sound an alarm when fumes become too strong for the raw material unloading process. The company goal is to work at 10 percent of the OSHA PEL for asphalt fumes.
"None of our activities have shown an action level," he said. "The testing of our employees wearing personal meters are verification that what we are doing is effective."
Federal OSHA recently launched a dialogue nationwide to learn how hazardous chemicals are being managed in workplaces. Many of OSHA's PELs are considered out of date and have not been updated since their adoption in 1971.
"In many cases, we understand a great deal more about the health effects, even at much lower levels than previously realized," said Oregon OSHA Administrator Michael Wood. "In others, the limit itself was a compromise because of decades-old limitations of sampling and analytical capability that no longer apply."
"In either case, the result is that workers are unnecessarily exposed to serious injury when employers mistake the regulatory limits for 'safe' levels of exposure," said Wood.
Larry O'Day, a reliability technician at the Owens Corning plant, works with contractors who come to the facility each day. He has been in manufacturing for years and recognizes the company's level of commitment.
"I perform contractor audits and stopped one from doing a job because there was a safer way to do it," he said. "We are empowered to own our safety program here."
Lavoie also points to a project in the past year that involved working with a caustic material not used in past processes.
"We could have bought a process unit off the shelf, but we would have had points of exposure that was not acceptable to us," Lavoie said. "Instead, our team worked together to conduct a design review and came up with a process to limit the exposures. No one person could have done it themselves."
"As regulators, we need to tackle the problem of outdated limits," Wood said. "But employers need not – and should not – wait for us. The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists and NIOSH levels are readily available. And they provide much greater levels of protection."
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