A new report on toxic chemical exposures in California workplaces is drawing increased attention and again highlighting the on-going failure of government to properly regulate this hazard.

“Because of its large economy and population, California’s regulations often influence the development of standards in other jurisdictions,” says the LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety and Health Division Director Scott Schneider. “If this report leads California to take strong, corrective action, the federal government and other states may be influenced to upgrade their programs.” The next steps unfold this month at a public advisory meeting in Oakland on April 4 and a Health Expert Advisory Committee meeting on April 29.

The December report, issued by an office of the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA), documents the dismal state of toxics regulation in the state, a pattern that prevails nationwide. The report notes that scores of known carcinogens (cancer causing agents) are not even regulated for workplace exposures. Further, outdated exposure limits on other chemicals allow companies to legally expose workers to toxic levels that will almost certainly cause cancer for a significant number of them.

Currently, more than 400 chemicals are regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which limits worker exposures to certain levels. OSHA’s permissible exposure limits (PELs) are the maximum average exposure that any worker should endure, and employers are required to institute engineering or administrative controls and supply personal protective equipment (PPE) to prevent excessive exposure.

Created in 1970, OSHA adopted its original PELs from the then-current list of threshold value limits (TVLs) developed by the American Conference of Government Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) from its on-going review of industrial practice and scientific research. However, despite an explosion of knowledge over the last 38 years about the risks of these and other chemicals, the PELs have never been updated.

The intention to update the PELs was thwarted by a 1984 federal court decision that blocked OSHA from adopting new ACGIH TVLs en masse and required the agency to justify changes on a chemical-by-chemical basis. Although OSHA devised a review process, it was cumbersome and was abandoned. The outdated PEL problem is so severe that it has become a priority concern of the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA).

As authorized by federal law and like many other states, California has its own occupational safety and health administration and is empowered to set its own PELs. The state is not hampered, therefore, by Congressional mandates, a political factor that has slowed OSHA regulatory initiative over the last two decades. Also, CalOSHA has a standards review board which facilitates more expedited evaluations of standards recommendations than is possible at the federal level.

Now that the PEL issue has gained renewed traction in California, it is possible that the state will break new ground in updating these important standards. That, in turn, could lead to national action.

[Steve Clark]