Washington, DC — The Occupational Safety & Health Administration is proposing to slash the hazard warning information that chemical manufacturers must provide to workers, customers and other users. According to testimony submitted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), OSHA’s plan would be a reversal in the right-to-know approach to chemical handling that would also mislead workers about actual hazards.
At issue is a proposed rulemaking by OSHA to eliminate the 27-year old requirement that chemical manufacturers include Threshold Limit Values (TLVs) from the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, as well as the cancer hazard evaluations from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, on Safety Data Sheets. Under the plan, only the OSHA maximum Permissible Exposure Limits or PELs would be required. While originally raised during the Bush administration, OSHA re-proposed the industry-backed plan on September 30, 2009.
At the OSHA rulemaking hearing today in Washington D.C., Dr. Adam Finkel, a professor of occupational and environmental health, former head of the OSHA Directorate of Health Standards Programs and a PEER Board member, testified that removing the national and international advisories is “harmful to workers” for a number of reasons, including –
• Hundreds of chemicals have no PELs. For these substances, workers would be provided no information;
• Where PELs exist, they are often decades out of outdate and almost always higher (i.e., less protective) than the corresponding TLV; and
• The few OSHA PELs established since 1970 do not convey information about hazard or risk, because they are constrained by what OSHA believes it is economically feasible for all industries to achieve.
“Diluting the information provided to customers, workers and other users of toxic chemicals goes against common sense,” stated Dr. Finkel, noting that OSHA has a huge backlog in setting and updating PELs.
“The notion that OSHA is spending its scarce regulatory time and energy to weaken protections is truly incredible.” Rather than reducing health risk information, Dr. Finkel proposed that OSHA create a list of truly risk-based exposure goals to supplant the TLVs, which it could do in a small fraction of the time it would take to promulgate binding PELs.
OSHA claims that it is merely trying to conform with global labeling rules and that manufacturers often disagree with the cancer hazard evaluations and other advisory information. Professor Sidney Shapiro of the Wake Forest University School of Law, on behalf of the Center for Progressive Reform, took sharp issue with these legal justifications, arguing that “the goals of the GHS [Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals] are best achieved by including more—not less—chemical risk information, including quantitative estimates of hazardous exposure levels.” Both Professors Finkel and Shapiro suggested that while OSHA risks no credible legal threat from retaining its existing requirements, it is vulnerable to court challenge for changing an existing regulation without showing that doing so will not impose significant risks upon workers.