Archive Notice - OSHA Archive

NOTICE: This is an OSHA Archive Document, and no longer represents OSHA Policy. It is presented here as historical content, for research and review purposes only.


PELs Update


OSHA currently has Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) for nearly 500 hazardous chemicals (the Z-Table limits). These were established in 1971 when the Agency was created and are based on research conducted primarily in the 1950's and early 1960's. Since then, much new information has become available indicating that in most cases these early exposure limits are outdated and do not adequately protect workers. OSHA has decided to give priority to the establishment of an ongoing and cyclical rulemaking process to update the PELs and to add new ones as the need arises. OSHA intends to begin this rulemaking process in Fiscal Year 1996 by proposing new PELs for a limited number of hazardous substances, and will continue to address this priority issue with additional rulemaking activity in future periods.

Hazard Description

OSHA currently has 470 Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) for various forms of approximately 300 chemical substances, many of which are widely used in industrial settings. While many of these substances share common properties, each one has unique characteristics and effects. Therefore, the potential health effects of exposure to these chemicals are extremely varied. Both chronic and acute effects on virtually every bodily system have been reported, including: sensory irritation; sensitization; metabolic disturbances; cardiovascular, neurologic, respiratory, liver and kidney disease; reproductive effects; and cancer.

Current Status

The current PELs are based on research conducted primarily in the 1950's and early 1960's and, in many cases, do not adequately protect worker health. Therefore, in 1989 OSHA published a final rule for general industry, revising 212 existing exposure limits and establishing 164 new ones. In addition, OSHA proposed in 1992 to apply most of these new and revised limits to construction, maritime, and agriculture.

OSHA estimated that its 1989 final rule revising 376 PELs for general industry would: provide additional health protection for over 21 million employees; eliminate 55,000 occupational illnesses and 683 deaths each year; and have an annual cost of $150 per employee and $6,000 per affected plant, or a fraction of 1% of the sales for all affected industry sectors (1).

However, in 1992 the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that OSHA did not sufficiently demonstrate that the new PELs were necessary or that they were feasible. The Court's decision to vacate the new limits forced the Agency to return to the original 1971 limits.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has the statutory responsibility for recommending exposure levels that are protective to workers. NIOSH has identified Recommended Exposure Levels (RELs) for 667 hazardous substances (2). The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) has developed hundreds of exposure limits that are more protective than OSHA's (3). Many U.S. companies use the current ACGIH levels or other internal and more protective limits.

A large number of business, labor and professional organizations have urged OSHA to establish a system for the regular updating of the PELs. The National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH) has recommended this issue for priority action. Specifically, in recommendations from its November 30, 1994 meeting, NACOSH recommended that OSHA "reissue a PEL standard including the process for continued updating of PELs. It is expected that feasibility studies would be incorporated into this process."

Rationale

The health hazards associated with OSHA's currently out-of-date PELs meet the criteria for designation as an OSHA priority. A very large number of workers in a wide variety of occupations and industries are exposed to chemicals at levels known to cause serious health effects; feasible industrial hygiene methods are probably available to reduce these exposures; there is a substantial body of scientific evidence supporting the need for change; and there is considerable support from both business and labor to undertake an effort to address the PELs in a systematic manner.

References

  1. Brief for the Secretary of Labor; AFL-CIO v. OSHA/USDOL, In the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, On Petition for Review of a Final Rule of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration; SOL No. 24008905567; 1990.
  2. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). 1994. NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards. DHHS Publication No. 94-116. Cincinnati, Ohio
  3. The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH). 1994. Threshold Limit Values for Chemical Substances and Physical Agents and Biological Exposure Indices (1994-1995). Cincinnati, Ohio.

NOTICE: This is an OSHA Archive Document, and no longer represents OSHA Policy. It is presented here as historical content, for research and review purposes only.