US Dept of Labor

Occupational Safety & Health AdministrationWe Can Help

NWX-DOL OSHA

Moderator: Mary Brandenberger
October 24, 2013
12:00 pm CT

Press Teleconference on Release of New Resources to Better Protect Workers from Hazardous Chemicals

Coordinator:

Thank you for joining us. At this time all participants are in a listen-only mode until the question and answer session. Today's conference call is being recorded.

If you have any objections you may disconnect your line at this time. I would like to introduce your host, Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health, Dr. David Michaels.


Moderator:

Thanks. Before we get started I would invite everyone to go to osha.gov and click on the first rotating image, which is in the upper left hand side. This'll direct you to links to both the toolkit and PELs tables that Dr. Michaels will be discussing. And from here I will turn it over to Dr. Michaels.


David Michaels:

Thank you for joining us this afternoon. From steel mills to hospitals, from construction sites to nail salons hazardous chemical exposure is a serious concern for countless employers and workers in many, many industries in every part of this nation.

American workers use thousands of chemicals every day, and every year tens of thousands of workers are made sick or die from occupational exposures to hazardous chemicals.

While many chemicals are known or suspected to be harmful, only a small proportion are regulated by OSHA, and for many of those chemicals that are covered by our regulations our workplace exposure limits are dangerously out of date, dating from the 1970s or even earlier and do not adequately protect workers.

As the Government Accountability Office reported in 2012, the complexity of OSHA's current rulemaking process makes it extremely difficult for us to update our chemical standards and to issue new standards in a reasonable period of time.

We recognize this and we're developing new ways to approach the problem of workplace exposure to hazardous substances. Today I am very pleased to announce the launch of two new Web resources to help employers better protect workers from hazardous chemical exposures.

The first of these new resources is a toolkit to help employers identify safer chemicals that can be used in place of more hazardous ones. This resource will enable employers and workers to reduce or eliminate hazardous chemicals and to identify safer substitutes for a chemical, material or process.

We know that the most efficient and effective way to protect workers from hazardous chemicals is by eliminating or replacing these chemicals with safer alternatives, and this should be done whenever possible.

The online toolkit is a convenient step-by-step guide to using informed substitution in the workplace. In addition we've created a second Web resource.

Today we're publishing three new annotated permissible exposure limits or PELs tables, which will assist employers who voluntarily adopt newer, more protective workplace exposure limits.

OSHA's permissible exposure limits or PELs are the maximum workplace exposure permitted under our regulations. The intent of PELs is to protect workers from the health effects of hazardous chemicals.

Unfortunately most of our PELs were adopted more than 40 years ago and new scientific data, industrial experience and developments in technology clearly indicate that in many instances these mandatory limits are not sufficiently protective of worker health.

So while we will continue to enforce our mandatory PELs, these new tables offer a better, more up to date resource on safe exposure limits. I advise employers who want to ensure that their workplaces are safe and their workers are protected to utilize the occupational exposure limits on these annotated tables, since simply complying with OSHA's antiquated PELs will not guarantee that workers will be safe.

The annotated tables provide side-by-side comparisons of OSHA PELs with recommended exposure limits of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health -- that's NIOSH -- and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, as well as the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health's required PELs, and you can find both of these new resources on OSHA's Web site at www.osha.gov.

Chemicals play a valuable role in the economy and are used to produce all types of goods that we rely on every day. With these two new resources OSHA is making sure that all business owners have access to information on exposure limits and safer alternatives to help protect their workers and their bottom lines.

Together we are working for healthier workers, safer workplaces and a stronger America.


Moderator:

At this time operator we'd like to open up the line for any questions.


Coordinator:

Thank you very much. If you would like to ask a question, please press star then 1 on your phone. Please be sure your line is unmuted and record your name when prompted.

To withdraw that request, you press star 2. Once again for any questions, please press star then 1 on your phone. One moment for the first question.


Dan Glucksman:

...from International Safety Equipment Association. And Dr. Michaels at the 2012 Hygiene show you were quoted in a trade press newsletter as quoting a 1987 court ruling where that opinion stated that an employer's compliance with OSHA standards will not disparage his regulatory obligation to provide employees with safeguards against recognized hazards.

You then said that this court ruling would make it quote possible for OSHA to cite employers by considering a manufacturer's limits as defining a recognized hazard.

So the question is with the announcement - with today's announcement, you know, kind of making clear to employers that there's a lot of other exposure data out there, will a chemical supplier's limits on the SDS become a new enforceable exposure limit?


David Michaels:

These two new Web resources that we've released today do not change any of our enforcement policies. We will continue to follow the same enforcement policies, many of which are driven by the individual situations that we see.

These really are informational. We're trying to get information out to employers, to unions, to others showing - providing the most important information to protect workers.


Dan Glucksman:

Okay thank you.


Coordinator:

This question is from Robert Iafolla. Your line is open sir.


Robert Iafolla:

Hey, Robert Iafolla here from BNA. Thanks for holding this teleconference Dr. Michaels.


David Michaels:

Nice to see you again. That's twice in a week.


Robert Iafolla:

Indeed. Indeed. At the American Industrial Hygiene Association conference back in May, you had mentioned that the agency would be putting out an RFI sometime in the next few months to start a dialogue on how to fix this broken system for updating PELs.

And I was just wondering if this is something the agency is still interested in, and if so do you have a target date for getting that RFI out?


David Michaels:

Absolutely. It's still on target. You know, every - all of our activities were delayed because of the shutdown, so all of our dates have been pushed off and we're still working on it.

But yes we expect to see that soon, certainly within the next couple of months. And we really look at these announcements, at RFI and other related activities as being part of a larger initiative to refocus on chemical exposures and to help employers do everything they can to reduce exposure to hazardous chemicals in the workplace, but yes it's on target. You know, obviously the target has been moved because of the shutdown.


Robert Iafolla:

That makes sense. Just another quick thing - helping companies voluntarily substitute safer chemicals is one way to try to protect workers in light of the broken system for updating PELs.

I'm wondering if injury and illness prevention program would be another way and if I2P2 is still happening.


David Michaels:

It certainly is and we, you know, we certainly encourage employers to adopt or even embrace the approach of the injury and illness prevention program. We have a lot of information on our Web site telling employers how to get there.

We have thousands of companies we work with very closely in our VPP and SHARP programs, companies that do, you know, have implemented injury and illness prevention programs because we know that not only do they save lives, they save limbs, they reduce occupational exposures and in fact employers' profitability.

So this - that's really a piece of the whole thing as well. But right now we're focused particularly on chemical exposures that we know that developing a program that focuses on these - a systematic program is a very effective way to address these problems.


Robert Iafolla:

Great. Thank you.


Coordinator:

This next question is from Dorothy Wigmore. Your line is open Dorothy.


Dorothy Wigmore:

Thanks. Hi David, it's Dorothy Wigmore out in California.


David Michaels:

Hello Dorothy.


Dorothy Wigmore:

Two things - first, I'm really happy to see this because it certainly - given all the work I've done I can see the - some familiar lists there in terms of sources for substitutes.

But I don't see quite as much when it comes to the PELs and it - so I'm wondering why it - you chose the ones you did. And then the second question applies to sort of both the idea of going after substitutes and using these PELs.

While you say your enforcement is going to remain the same, what's this going to mean - state plans? And for enforcement in general how will inspectors be actually using these materials when they go out into workplaces?


David Michaels:

You know, nothing really changes. Our - when we - when our inspectors or when the inspectors for states go into workplaces, they look at our current PELs but also consider the general duty clause if the particular situation at that workplace warrants it.

States can do the same and as you know we attempt to ensure that states are at least as effective as OSHA, but they have a great deal of leeway in how they use that.

So we haven't provided this to the states yet and we will be interested in looking at how they might use what we've done, because the states take some very different approaches and some of them can be very illuminating in ways to reduce hazards in workplaces.

We chose these PELs because we think they're widely available in rails. They're widely available. They're often used. Certainly the California ones actually have the weight of law in California.

NIOSH is a very important government agency that does tremendous amount of work in setting these recommended limits. And so we start - we thought we'd start with these four and of course AC - the ACGIH TLVs - and for those of you who don't follow all the acronyms in the inside base book, the Threshold Limit Values of the, you know, Limit Values yes of the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists have been used for many years in their - as essentially recommendations to employers.

We thought those were the four to start with. We've had discussions with other organizations about possibly adding other columns to this, and we certainly are open to those discussions.

Rather than trying to have a very complex set of tables we thought we'd start here, put the information out and we welcome others using this and developing tables on their own as well, and we're certainly open to suggestions or adding additional columns to this.


Dorothy Wigmore:

Okay. Thank you.


Coordinator:

And this next question comes from Craig Palmer. Your line is open sir.


Craig Palmer:

Thank you. Thank you for holding this teleconference and thank you for the announcement. Craig Palmer, ADA News. I'm wondering if these are sector specific, and in any case what kind of transition period if any there is for employers to absorb the information and adjust to the new PELs.


David Michaels:

Well these aren't new PELs in that these don't carry the weight of law. These are recommendations and we're really reporting these ones that already exist.

I mean, the California ones carry the weight of law in California but we're not presenting anything new. So really this is just - these are tools that we're putting out, not new regulations and they're not sector specific. They're really - they really are applicable across the board.


Craig Palmer:

Well what do employers have to do with them? What - other than be informed about them?


David Michaels:

Well what we're asking employers to do is actually to begin with by looking at the Web site - the - on transitioning to safer substitutions, safer chemicals and we provide a number of very concrete steps that they can use to identify whether there are hazardous chemicals that can be substituted, and then showing them how to choose the proper substitute.

So again this is on a voluntary basis but we think this is a very useful tool, telling many employers what other hundreds - thousands of other employers have already done, which is go through a process to identify and substitute.


Craig Palmer:

So if they're not sector specific there's nothing specific to the healthcare sector for example.


David Michaels:

Well there are a number of the chemicals that are discussed - listed in the PELs for example which are used in the healthcare sector, and we hope that healthcare employers will do that.

Similarly we know that hospitals across the country have gone through this process and have identified chemicals that can be eliminated and safer substitutes chosen.

And - but this approach is one that isn't limited to the healthcare industry or any other industry.


Craig Palmer:

Right. Last question. In the inspection process are you looking at any of this toolkit information or PEL information in your inspection process?


David Michaels:

Our inspection process isn't changing and the criteria that we use to decide whether or not to issue a citation doesn't change at all either.


Craig Palmer:

Thank you sir.


Coordinator:

This next question is from Christopher Cole. Your line is open sir.


Christopher Cole:

Hi, Chris Cole from Inside OSHA. Hi Dr. Michaels. Thanks for the call. Yes just to follow up on this whole enforcement thing, I know you're saying it doesn't change the overall approach to enforcement in the field.

Could you extend that to say that this wouldn't be used to support a general duty citation in court or can you eliminate or can...?


David Michaels:

Well when we go - right, when we go to court and we - if we were to issue a general duty citation, we look at the specific knowledge of the employer as well as the knowledge of the industry.

And we're not identifying new knowledge of this. This is - the material we're putting out really is stuff that's very widely known. We've compiled it in one place and encouraging employers to voluntarily substitute for using safer chemicals.


Christopher Cole:

Okay. I just - I did want to ask you about the use of TLVs. I know that that has been a subject of some litigation previously - OSHA's use of TLVs. And I realize this isn't a regulation but has OSHA's legal team had any reservations about your inclusion of this?


David Michaels:

Everybody in OSHA and the Labor Department enthusiastically supports this approach.


Christopher Cole:

Okay let me just ask one last question on the use of California PELs here. Does - what does that say about what you think about California's approach to updating its PELs and could that - could they be demonstrating a process that in any way could be duplicated at the federal level?


David Michaels:

This - what we're putting out doesn't speak to that at all. What - really what we're saying here is we're calling attention to the fact that OSHA's PELs are out of date and many of them are inadequately protective.

Other agencies including California OSHA, Cal/OSHA, have set limits which are more protective, and so we're encouraging employers who want to ensure their workers are adequately protected to look to some of these other occupational exposure limits in deciding what they will do in the workplaces that they control.


Coordinator:

And your next question is from (Jamie McConnelly) - (McConnell). Your line is open.


(Jamie McConnell):

Great thanks. I was just wondering if there - if OSHA has any plans to host any Webinars that'll walk folks through how exactly this toolkit works.


David Michaels:

Yes some - that's something that we've been considering. We haven't scheduled anything yet but we're certainly eager to help people walk through this and to apply these principles.


(Jamie McConnell):

Great. Well yes I hope it's something that you consider.


David Michaels:

Well thanks.


Coordinator:

And this question is from Jerry Laws. Your line is open sir.


Jerry Laws:

Thank you. Jerry Laws from Occupational Health & Safety magazine. Again thanks for holding this Dr. Michaels. Is - in releasing these is this an acknowledgment that it's really not possible given the current regulatory regime under which you must operate to update the PELs, or do you think in some way this makes it easier to do?


David Michaels:

Well look, we certainly continue to attempt to update our PELs. We're in the middle of a process right now on silica, but the resources and the time required to update individual PELs are - is substantial or are substantial.

So while we'll continue to do that, there are thousands of chemicals used in the American workplace and we won't be able to issue new PELs, you know, for the vast majority of them.

And so we have to think about this in a different way, and this represents a - not a change in thinking but an expansion of the way we think about how we address chemical hazards.

And while we will continue to update our PELs and try to do the best job we can, workers and employers can't wait. They need to get the best information and the newest information possible to ensure workers are protected, and this is a way to begin to do that.


Jerry Laws:

Okay, thank you.


Coordinator:

And as a reminder to ask your questions, please press star then 1 on your phone. This next question is from (Dave Johnson). Your line is open sir.


(Dave Johnson):

Dr. Michaels, good afternoon and again thanks for - I join everybody else. Thanks for having this conference and making this announcement. I'm interested in the statement that you opened with Dr. Michaels and saying, “Tens of thousands of workers get sick or die every year of chemical exposures.”

As we all know it's much easier to count injuries as the Bureau of Labor Statistics does than occupational illnesses and deaths from occupational illnesses. Where did you get that statistic from?


David Michaels:

There are two studies that are done by the National - scientists at NIOSH and the National Cancer Institute that have - attempting to estimate the current burden of occupational disease - actually fatality in this case. And those are their numbers coming up with the 40,000, 50,000 range.


(Dave Johnson):

Okay. Really? Okay.


David Michaels:

Of course those are based on exposures that occurred in the past.


(Dave Johnson):

Yes.


David Michaels:

We don't know how many workers will get sick based on current exposures, but we know that exposures are currently occurring that do - that are - the exposure levels that are associated with increased risk of illness and death, and that's why we're doing this now.


(Dave Johnson):

Thank you.


David Michaels:

Yes, and it's pointed out to me the - on our Web site where we discuss all this, those citations are available, the studies that - where we based that statement.


Coordinator:

And the next question is from (Joe Kinilick). Your line is open sir.


(Joe Kinilick):

Hi. Thanks very much Doc. Appreciate your having this conference call. To go back to enforcement once again, if OSHA is pressing a case against a company would that company's lack of attention to the - either of these two sites - if the company could not demonstrate that it had made a - taken advantage or made use of the - either of these two sites, would that fact work against them in the enforcement proceeding or is this entirely neutral in terms of enforcement?


David Michaels:

This is strictly entirely neutral in terms of enforcement. This is just putting information out for employers to use, but it doesn't create new information that doesn't presume that they have knowledge of it. There are other - we will not change the way that we currently do that.


(Joe Kinilick):

Okay and one other thing if I may. In the safer chemicals that I'm assuming the site would recommend for substitution, have you done anything to determine whether they're - they have equal efficacy in terms of their industrial use and are more or less the same cost or is that...?


David Michaels:

That's one of the issues that we, you know, we recommend that employers think about. That's why when you talk about substitution, we really use the phrase informed substitution.

We want to, you know, employers have to gather enough information to see if that substitution is - gets them to a place that's both safer and is protective of their bottom line as well.

It's - both of those things or all of those things have to be taken into account, and employers often do that and we try to give them some tools they can do that.


(Joe Kinilick):

Okay thanks.


Coordinator:

Sir your next question is from (Elizabeth Gruffman). Your line is open.


(Elizabeth Gruffman):

Yes, thanks so much. Thanks for taking my question. I'm - my question is a follow up on the previous one about what OSHA is doing to help our people to - towards safer alternatives/chemicals.

What is OSHA doing in the realm of chemicals that are brand new that - for which there is very little existing toxicological information available? Is OSHA developing any resources that will specifically help people work on those chemicals to find out if they are indeed safer?


David Michaels:

You know, first let me go back and say what we're putting out in these materials is really a process, and therefore if the information is available this is a way to get that information to make choices.

The question of new chemicals is a different one obviously, and that much more falls under the Toxic Substances Control Act and EPA. And we work very closely with EPA trying to ensure that when they get applications for new uses of chemicals they consider worker exposures.

And actually I think over the last two years the process that EPA is taking to issue essentially licenses or permits to use new chemicals now take worker safety into much greater account.

And so we'll be working - we'll continue to do that to strengthen our relationship with EPA to address those. We - it's very difficult for us to issue any sort of guidance or particularly to issue standards when there is a lack of toxicological information other than to say, you know, proper precautions should be taken.

It's difficult to go beyond that. But obviously one thing we encourage is if very little is known about a chemical, one should look at whether the possibility - whether an employer has the possibility to use a chemical which is known to be safe or at least safer.


Coordinator:

Sir your next question is from (Charlotte Brody). Your line is open.


(Charlotte Brody):

Thank you. So let me join in thanking OSHA and you Dr. Michaels for creating these two tools and for putting together this call. I wanted to first just applaud you for the courage to say that the PELs are antiquated and to do what you can to do something about that.

And I wanted to ask you to say more about the decision to launch these two Web tools in tandem.


David Michaels:

Well it's - that's - thank you for that question. You know, this dates back to the last three or four years of our history here at OSHA and the leadership team that President Obama put in here.

It was very clear to us when we arrived that the standard setting process was broken, and that there was no reason to be defensive about - to insist that our standards were safe because we looked at the science and it was very clear that new science has developed many of these PELs were first promulgated and we know that workers were getting sick at levels below that exposure.

That became very clear to us in the Deepwater Horizon cleanup efforts. When we looked at exposure to some of the hydrocarbons and workers had exposure below the OSHA PEL but we said, “The OSHA PEL shouldn't be the standard applied because workers could get sick at levels below those - that standard.”

So once we went down that road and we said, “Those PELs were not adequate,” we then looked at all of our other PELs and we saw that many, many were not adequate.

You know, most of the PELs that we have that - of the more than 400 we have, the vast majority were taken from a list put together by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists in 1968.

And some of them were out of date then so we're talking about more than 40 years of - have passed since these PELs were first recommended. It's not surprising that they're out of date - not surprising that they're not protective.

And when we started talking to others in our field including many, many employers, there's a widespread recognition that these PELs are not adequate.

Now our enforcement activity is very much based on those PELs, but that doesn't mean we have to just rely on those PELs to ensure that workers are safe.

And so we want to get information out to encourage employers to look at the PELs recommended or the occupational exposure limits recommended by others, because they're clearly more protective and better than ours.

But just trying to reduce exposure to a hazardous chemical may not be the best approach. It's always better to eliminate that chemical and to substitute it if we can for something less hazardous.

It's easier. It's safer. It's cheaper. It's a better approach and so by linking these two we're trying to show employers you may be below the OSHA PEL but above a recommended level from NIOSH or ACGIH or even, you know, out of compliance in California.

You could try to get to a safer level of that chemical, but let's think about taking a different approach. Maybe there's a safer chemical that could be used.

It would be better for you, better for the workers, better for the environment and that's why we really link these two together.


Coordinator:

And once again as a reminder to ask your questions, please press star then 1 on your phone. Sir your next question comes from Greg Siwinski. Your line is open.


Greg Siwinski:

Yes hi, Greg Siwinski, the Occupational Health Center in Upstate New York. Great two initiatives - I appreciate it. My question is do you foresee your compliance officers using these two tools proactively in their inspections to promote employers to take these steps in the right direction?


David Michaels:

We see all of OSHA staff and the whole OSHA family, especially our state consultants using these tools to encourage employers to take the steps to reduce exposure either through lowering the exposure to that chemical or informed substitution, but it won't change our enforcement policies.


Greg Siwinski:

Thank you.


Coordinator:

And sir this question is from (Daniel Glucksman). Your line is open.


(Daniel Glucksman):

Hi Dr. Michaels. One other question. I think we're all interested in enforcement because that's where sort of the rubber meets the road for OSHA and the sort of rest of the world.

Ms. Wigmore had asked a question. In your response you noted that the general duty clause could be cited if warranted. And I was wondering from the - sort of the OSHA side if now that this information is public, if that might inform an OSHA inspector's kind of calculus on when the general duty clause is warranted.


David Michaels:

Think I answered this question that these don't change any of our enforcement policies or activities.


(Daniel Glucksman):

Okay. Okay great. Thank you.


Coordinator:

And sir there are currently no further questions in the queue.


Moderator:

All right, thank you everyone. Just a reminder all of the references that Dr. Michaels may have mentioned that they are available on the OSHA web site at osha.gov.

Again if you click on the first image - rotating image on the left hand side you will see a link to both the chemical exposure limit tables as well as the toolkit. Thank you.


Coordinator:

This does conclude today's conference call. Thank you for joining. You may disconnect your lines at this time.

END

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