OSHA requirements are set by statute, standards and regulations. Our interpretation letters explain these requirements and how they apply to particular circumstances, but they cannot create additional employer obligations. This letter constitutes OSHA's interpretation of the requirements discussed. Note that our enforcement guidance may be affected by changes to OSHA rules. Also, from time to time we update our guidance in response to new information. To keep apprised of such developments, you can consult OSHA's website at https://www.osha.gov.

February 21, 1989




SUBJECT:          Formaldehyde Standard Clarification

This is in response to a request made by Janice Barrier of your staff concerning the intent of a provision in the Formaldehyde Standard (29 CFR 1910.1048).

The request involves employees in the apparel industry. The question concerns whether only employees with skin problems have to wear protective clothing under the following provision:

(h)(1)(ii): Contact with irritating or sensitizing materials shall be prevented to the extent necessary to eliminate the hazard.

The intent of this provision is for all employees who are in contact with irritating or sensitizing materials to have proper protective clothing and equipment in order to avoid irritant dermatitis and the serious problem of sensitization to formaldehyde.

Dermatitis in the textile and apparel industries is well documented, and formaldehyde is a well known sensitizer. The nature of skin disorders caused by handling textiles may be irritant or allergic dermatitis. Once sensitized, however, an employee will probably continue to react to small concentrations of formaldehyde for years. Dermal sensitization can severely limit a worker's ability to pursue employment and disrupt the worker's personal life since formaldehyde use in small amounts is pervasive in consumer products. Sensitization is clearly a serious and material impairment of health.

For enforcement purposes the compliance officer needs to document that a skin problem exists (and the extent of this problem in the plant) in order to show employer knowledge that the material is irritating or sensitizing. Next, the medical records may need to be examined in order to verify whether the cases are due to irritant dermatitis or if they are occurring in workers who react to formaldehyde at especially low levels because of sensitization from previous exposure to formaldehyde. (Note: The medical surveillance provisions of the Formaldehyde Standard for employees who develop signs and symptoms of overexposure to formaldehyde came into effect February 2, 1988.)

1. When dermatitis is the result of skin sensitization from previous exposure to formaldehyde then only those employees with the skin problems need to be protected.

2. When the skin problems are the result of irritant dermatitis then, as a minimum, all employees who do the same job as the workers with the skin problems must be protected.

If there are legitimate safety concerns in having all employees wear PPE, then the employer, as a minimum, needs to have a program for identifying high risk groups and investigating outbreaks of dermatitis. The employer, through experience, is in the best position to identify products that are likely to cause dermatitis in employees. Irritant dermatitis may be an isolated event caused by handling one specific fabric, in which case the need for PPE would be limited. It is more difficult to impart wrinkle-resistance to some types of cloth. These materials will likely contain higher free formaldehyde concentrations. Apparel manufacturers can, for example, request that suppliers of cloth provide estimates of free formaldehyde content in their fabrics or do the free formaldehyde testing themselves to determine whether PPE is needed.

I hope this information is helpful. If you have further questions, please contact MaryAnn Garrahan at 523-8036.