Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
David Michaels, PhD, MPH
Assistant Secretary of Labor
for Occupational Safety and Health
REQUEST FOR INFORMATION ON UPDATING OSHA'S CHEMICAL PERMISSIBLE EXPOSURE LIMITS
Good afternoon and thank you for joining me. I am Dr. David Michaels and today we at OSHA are formally initiating a national dialogue with stakeholders on ways to prevent work-related illness caused by exposure to hazardous substances.
The workplace hazards that you usually hear about are the ones you can see - trenches and silos, fall hazards and forklifts, electrical wiring and machines with moving parts. But many of the most serious hazards are the Silent Killers - the ones we can't see: airborne chemicals, bloodborne pathogens, and fine particles of dust. Some of these invisible, Silent Killers work slowly over years of continuous exposure.
American workers use tens of thousands of chemicals every day. While many of these chemicals are known or suspected of being harmful, only a small number are regulated in the workplace. New chemicals are being introduced into worksites every year, and we are struggling to keep pace with the potential hazards. As a result, forty years after the creation of OSHA, thousands of American workers are still becoming ill and dying from exposure to hazardous chemicals.
OSHA's Permissible Exposure Limits, or PELs, have historically been the cornerstone of our approach to managing worker exposure to hazardous chemicals. OSHA's PELs are regulatory limits on the amount or concentration of a substance allowed in the air, for the purpose of protecting workers against the health effects of overexposure to hazardous substances. Although thousands of chemicals are used every day in American workplaces, OSHA has exposure limits for fewer than 500, and many of these PELs are dangerously out of date and do not adequately protect workers. We need more efficient, effective ways to protect our workers, and we welcome new ideas, new perspectives, and practical solutions.
Past efforts to update our PELs have largely been unsuccessful. Since 1971, OSHA has successfully established or updated PELs for only about 30 chemicals. We have issued only one new exposure limit since the year 2000. As a result, many workers are currently being exposed to levels of chemicals that are legal, but not safe.
The process through which OSHA issues new exposure limits or updates old ones is broken. And that's why we have issued this Request for Information - to begin a dialogue with our stakeholders to help prevent work-related illnesses and better protect the health of America's workers.
The first step in this dialogue is the publication of a Request for Information in the Federal Register. We are asking stakeholders to help us identify the best approaches to managing chemical hazards and strategies for updating our permissible exposure limits. We are particularly interested in ideas about possible streamlined approaches for risk assessment and feasibility analyses, and alternative approaches for managing chemical exposures. Among the approaches we ask about are control banding, task-based approaches, and informed substitution. The comment period will be open for 180 days.
This country is respected and renowned around the world for innovation. We have an opportunity over the next six months to show what we can do when we put our best minds to the worthy goal of protecting our economy's most valuable asset: the lives of our workers.
We believe this RFI and the dialogue it will initiate is an important step towards protecting the current and future generations of workers who build and sustain our nation's economy. The goal of this public dialogue is to give stakeholders and OSHA a forum to develop innovative approaches to reduce occupational illnesses and improve the health of workers in the United States. In coming months, we will announce additional ways for members of the public to participate in the conversation.
We invite you to visit our web site, where you can learn more about these issues and how the public can participate in this dialogue. We value everyone's input and look forward to hearing from all stakeholders throughout this process. Again, thank you for joining me on this call.