Read this column if you produce or use chemicals.
Worker safety, product quality, and productivity are likely impacts of a new process for setting workplace Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs). PELs are almost certain to be far lower and more stringent.
While the new approach is for California, if you live elsewhere, defer that sigh of relief. Levels set for California are very likely to impact decisions by your management, your health and safety professionals, and your legal advisors regarding your chemical options.
CAL/OSHA NUMBERS, LEGALLY-ENFORCEABLE
Not all worker exposure numbers are created equal. Worker exposure numbers may be recommended by individual chemical manufacturers, by professional organizations (AIHA, ACGIH), and by governmental agencies. OSHA sets legally-enforceable worker exposure levels at the Federal level. Cal/OSHA establishes levels enforceable in California; they cannot be less stringent than Federal levels.
VERY LOW NUMBERS
Cal/OSHA has a new PEL process with a different paradigm, one that is likely to produce significantly lower allowable inhalation numbers. Recommended levels are first made by a Health Experts Advisory Committee (HEAC). The results may then be considered by a Feasibility Advisory Committee (FAC); the HEAC process is dominant.
Why are the recommended HEAC numbers likely to be lower? There is an emphasis on risk assessment, based on published animal studies. Such an approach tends to lead to lower numbers, in part to account for inter-species uncertainty. Comments to the effect that multiple variables can mask adverse affects are used to discount the consideration of lack of observed worker effects, even with years of use of widely-used chemicals.
Emphasis on the risk assessment approach is enhanced by an ongoing, enthusiastic involvement (some might say dominance) by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA). OEHHA conducts community risk assessments for California including assessments used to compile the extensive list of chemicals covered by Proposition 65. Proposition 65 involves posting ubiquitous signs and warnings; PELs impel action and controls by employers. Risk assessments for communities require a very different, very conservative approach compared with what is used for the worker population..
Cal/OSHA is considering sensitive populations in setting worker safety numbers. This has not always been the case. Historically, there was a self-selection process. For example, workers with a peanut allergy would not seek employment in a factory that processes peanuts.
Further, it is our observation that many industry-based studies presented to HEAC are treated with more than a modicum of suspicion, even though most animal toxicological studies are conducted or financed by industry, not government. Toxicological studies are complex, and we think they should be subject to critical evaluation and interpretation whether they come from industry, the government, or academia.
CHEMICAL DU JOUR
A number of chemicals, for example n-methyl pyrollidone, toluene, sulfuric acid, and trichloroethylene, are under current consideration. We strongly recommend that you not wait until your favorite chemical is under study. Some fabricators and chemical manufacturers have appeared at specific HEAC meetings, concerned with the fate of a single chemical. Ongoing attendance by interested companies and professional organizations is more likely to be productive.
TRANSPARENT–AS LONG AS YOU LOOK, UNDERSTAND & PARTICIPATE
The new Cal/OSHA process includes goals of “underlying transparency.” Transparency is useful only if you actually look through the window and grasp the implications of what you are seeing.
The selection and control of chemicals is crucial to your operation, crucial to critical cleaning of microelectronics or aerospace components, crucial to achieving appropriate surface quality of a medical device, crucial to achieving purity of advanced pharmaceuticals. You cannot depend on someone else (a chemical supplier, a safety officer) to “fix” the issue of potentially very low Cal/OSHA PELs; you do not want to be impelled to use a complex mixture or a chemical that has an undetermined exposure level and that may not yield the needed product quality. The new PEL process has positive attributes and the HEAC committee of volunteers is very dedicated. Barbara attends the HEAC meetings on a regular basis as an observer. Your company or professional organization should monitor the Cal/OSHA processes, contribute to the ongoing discussions, understand the implications, and communicate those implications.
- www.bfksolutions.com/Newsletter%20Archives/V5-Issue1/ AB%20515.html
- J. Durkee, ”Why Exposure Limits Can Have Little to do with Hazards,” Controlled Environments Magazine, September 2008
Barbara Kanegsberg and Ed Kanegsberg, “the Cleaning Lady and the Rocket Scientist,” are independent consultants in critical and precision cleaning, surface preparation, and contamination control. They are the editors of The Handbook for Critical Cleaning, CRC Press. Contact them at BFK Solutions LLC., 310-459-3614; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.bfksolutions.com.