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 http://www.osha.gov.

January 18, 2012

Mr. Jesse Mills, PE
Mills Engineering
1361-E East Garrison Blvd.
Gastonia, NC 28054

Dear Mr. Mills:

Thank you for your June 23, 2010, letter to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) Directorate of Enforcement Programs.  You requested OSHA's interpretation of the Cotton Dust standard, 29 CFR 1910.1043.  A member of my staff contacted you by phone after we received your letter, to clarify your scenario.  Your paraphrased scenario and question are below, as expressed during the phone conversation.  This response constitutes OSHA's interpretation only of the requirements discussed and may not be applicable to other scenarios and questions.  We apologize for the delay in our response.

Scenario:  Your client manufactures absorbent glass tubes that are filled with cotton fibers.  This manufacturer receives raw, unwashed cotton in bales from an outside supplier.  Your client unwraps the cotton bales and manually puts the cotton into hoppers and pre-feeders to be conditioned.  Next, the conditioned cotton fibers are pneumatically blown into long glass tubes.

Question:  What is the permissible exposure limit (PEL) that OSHA would enforce for cotton dust exposures to employees in this scenario, who handle unwashed cotton fibers in the manufacture of absorbent glass tubes?

Response:  Exposure to raw cotton dust is recognized as a serious inhalation hazard.  Short-term health effects include difficulty breathing or tightness across the chest, and coughing up phlegm or mucus.  Long-term effects include asthma and byssinosis, also known as "brown lung" disease, which is permanent and disabling.  Exposure to cotton dust also leads to increased risk of chronic bronchitis and emphysema.  The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has a Recommended Exposure Limit (REL) for all exposures to raw cotton dust of less than 0.2 milligram per cubic meter (mg/m3), as a time weighted average (TWA) for up to a 10-hour workday during a 40-hour workweek.1  We are enclosing an OSHA Fact Sheet on the hazards of cotton dust for further information.

Your scenario involves a unique cotton dust operation that was not envisioned when OSHA developed its Cotton Dust standard, 29 CFR 1910.1043.  Although this standard contains PELs for specific operations involving potential exposures to cotton dust - the lowest of these PELs being 0.2 mg/m3 - these PELs are not applicable in your scenario because they only apply to yarn manufacturing, slashing and weaving operations, or waste houses for textile operations, respectively, as per paragraphs 29 CFR 1910.1043(a)(1) and (c)(1).

OSHA's Air Contaminants standard, 29 CFR 1910.1000, establishes a PEL of 1 mg/m3 for cotton dust (see Table Z-1).  This PEL, however, is also not applicable because footnote (e) to Table Z-1 explains that this PEL applies to respirable dust from the cotton waste processing operations of waste recycling (sorting, blending, cleaning and willowing) and garnetting, neither of which describes your operation.  In short, OSHA does not have a PEL for cotton dust that applies to your scenario.

However, please be aware that the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) requires that employers not only comply with specific standards, but also protect employees from exposure to recognized hazards that can cause death or serious physical harm.  29 U.S.C. 654(a).  Thus, where abatement is feasible, exposure to raw cotton dust at levels that can cause serious physical harm constitutes a violation of section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act, which is commonly referred to as the "General Duty Clause."  OSHA's Field Operations Manual ("FOM"), CPL 02-00-150, Chapter 4, Section III, provides specific enforcement instructions to OSHA compliance officers on General Duty Clause citations.  OSHA's FOM is available at: http://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=DIRECTIVES&p_id=4935.

As you are located in North Carolina, you should be aware that the North Carolina Department of Labor operates an OSHA-approved State Plan which is responsible for the adoption and enforcement of standards throughout the State.  North Carolina standards, for the most part, are identical to Federal OSHA standards, but the State may have additional requirements and enforcement policies, particularly regarding General Duty Clause violations.  Information on the NC-OSH program is available at: https://www.osha.gov/dcsp/osp/stateprogs/north_carolina.html.  Please contact North Carolina directly for further information and to discuss your specific compliance situation.

Mr. Allen McNeely, Director
Occupational Safety and Health Division
North Carolina Department of Labor
1101 Mail Service Center
Raleigh, NC 27699-1101
Ph: (919) 807-2900

Thank you for your interest in occupational safety and health.  We hope you find this information helpful.  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 www.osha.gov.

If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact the Office of Health Enforcement at (202) 693-2190.

Sincerely,



Thomas Galassi, Director
Directorate of Enforcement Programs

Enclosure

cc:  Kevin Beauregard, Assistant Director, NC-OSH
Cindy Coe, Regional Administrator, Atlanta Regional Office


1  NIOSH Criteria Documents - Criteria for a Recommended Standard: Occupational Exposure to Cotton Dust. 1974 DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 75-118.   [Return to Text]