State ups ante on safeguarding workers from toxic chemicals

Workers are poised to receive better protection against exposure to two toxic substances, as an agency prepares to move on a long-awaited plan to change outdated standards that fail to shield employees from carcinogens known to cause serious illnesses and even death.

Leaders at the Oregon Occupational Safety & Health (OSHA) are putting together a panel of advisors to propose new standards for lowering workers’ permissible exposures to lead and manganese, two highly toxic chemicals that are commonly used in construction and manufacturing.

The agency will invite businesses and workers’ groups to participate in the advisory groups.

Occupational health experts at the federal and state level have warned for years about the inadequacy of current standards to protect workers from cancer-causing toxic chemicals. These standards, known as permissible exposure limits, have not been updated since the 1970s and fail to reflect advances in medical research and new technologies.

Earlier this year, Oregon OSHA narrowed a list of 10 substances out of hundreds of toxic chemicals prevalent in the workplace that it intends to review. Michael Wood, Oregon OSHA administrator, said in a recent telephone interview that it is “entirely possible” new worker protection standards for lead and manganese will be in place by the end of 2018.

Lead is prevalent in industrial paint applications and construction-related work involving repair and demolition of buildings.  Prolonged exposure can cause neurological, reproductive and renal failure.

Current guidelines stipulate that workers should not be exposed to more than 50 micrograms of lead per cubic meter of air over an eight-hour period, while the level of lead in workers’ blood should remain less than 60 micrograms.

Current medical research shows that adults should have less than 10 micrograms of lead in their bloodstream to remain healthy.

Changing permissible exposure limits is a lengthy process requiring complex technical and economic feasibility studies. The federal OSHA’s review of the standard for silica, for example, took 10 years.

Previous efforts at reform were also hampered by legal challenges and objections from industry.

Regulators may find businesses more conducive to reform of worker protection standards given the outcry from recent high-profile events of toxic chemicals endangering the public and employees.

The latest controversy came at the end of March, when regulators shut down a multi-use commercial building in Salem after finding lead dust levels on interior surfaces that were way above national health protection standards. Inside the building was a gym, a home renovation firm and a catering business.   

The building previously housed the operations of a battery manufacturer that stored and finished batteries at the site.

SAIF, an Oregon nonprofit workers’ compensation insurer, partnered with Oregon OSHA in their efforts to update permissible limits to toxins in the workplace. The organization recommends its policyholders use health-based limits rather than permissible exposure limits. These “safer limits” are based on the latest research in toxicology and epidemiology.

“In addition to making a safer place to work, using these health-based limits also helps with recruitment and retention efforts as employees appreciate the concern for their safety and health,” said David Johnson, industrial hygiene supervisor at SAIF.

After tackling lead and manganese, Oregon OSHA plans to review four to six other toxins that are common in the workplace. “We will continue to chip away at the list,” said Wood.

Kim Moore

Kim Moore is the editor for Oregon Business magazine.

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