U.S. Cracks Down on Toxic Substances : New Exposure Limits Could Save 700 Lives a Year, OSHA Says

Associated Press

The government greatly expanded its role in protecting workers from hazardous materials Friday, setting exposure limits for 164 substances for the first time and tightening limits for 212 more in changes that officials said could save 700 lives a year.

“This is a monumental job,” Assistant Labor Secretary John A. Pendergrass said in announcing the standards, which he said should significantly reduce the risk of illness to 21 million Americans who work in general industry and may be exposed to toxic or hazardous materials.

About 4.5 million workers now face exposures above the new limits, the Labor Department said in completing a two-year project that represents the first large-scale changes to exposure standards in nearly two decades. Employers have until September to comply.

“We are literally taking a 20-year technological leap,” said Pendergrass, head of the department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “This is the biggest action OSHA has taken in its history.”


700 Deaths a Year

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration estimated that in addition to preventing about 700 deaths a year, the tighter limits should prevent 55,000 illnesses and 500,000 lost workdays each year attributed to workplace exposure to hazardous and toxic materials. Rough estimates provided by the agency indicated that the new standards could cut exposure-related deaths by one-fifth, illnesses and lost workdays by one-fourth.

The reductions in maximum exposure limits cover some of the most commonly used industrial materials and byproducts, including acetone, carbon monoxide, carbon disulfide, chloroform, hydrogen cyanide, perchloroethylene and styrene.

Substances regulated for the first time include wood dust and grain dust, acrylic acid, butane, gasoline, paraffin wax fumes, tungsten and welding fumes.

Some substances are known or suspected carcinogens; others can have narcotic-like effects on humans. Still others are blamed for kidney, liver, heart and respiratory ailments while some are major skin and eye irritants.

Further Review Expected

The limits cover the maximum amount of a substance a worker can be exposed to at any given time and during an eight-hour workday.

OSHA said it needed to conduct further review before setting limits for exposure to asphalt, fibrous glass dust and mineral wool. Those substances had been subject to new standards under the agency’s draft regulations, but conflicting data presented during public hearings prompted OSHA to delay final decisions.

The changes announced Friday could cost employers, on average, $6,000 a year for each affected workplace, though that would vary greatly, the government said. Costs could range from $77,400 a year for petroleum refineries to $360 annually for auto dealers. The average per-worker cost is $150.

The department considered limits for more than 400 industrial chemicals and substances in a single review, departing from a policy of case-by-case study that had produced new, comprehensive standards for just 24 substances in 17 years.

Existing Limits Stand

After the review, the government decided to let stand existing limits on 52 substances. The new limits on the others take effect March 1 and employers must be in compliance by Sept. 1.

Exposure limits will remain unchanged for 169 additional substances not covered by the two-year review. Some of them are currently being reviewed on an individual basis.

The new standards apply only to general industry but will be extended, following additional proceedings, to construction and maritime industries as well.

New limits were first suggested two years ago. A draft was released last summer followed by 13 public hearings and a public comment period during which more than 90 companies, trade associations and labor unions testified.