On October 24, 2013, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) announced the availability of a new annotated table of Permissible Exposure Limits (“PELs”) for chemicals in the workplace, along with alternative standards that “may serve to better protect workers” than the existing federal limits. OSHA has, in the past, issued regulations establishing mandatory PELs for various chemicals, but most of these regulatory standards have not been updated since they were first issued decades ago. According to its October 24 press release, OSHA now believes that many of the regulatory PELs are out of date and do not sufficiently protect employee health.
Rather than issue new regulations, OSHA is recommending that employers consider using the alternative PELs presented in the new annotated PEL tables. These tables present, side by side, OSHA’s existing regulatory PEL, the PEL established by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (“Cal/OSHA“), the Recommended Exposure Limits (“RELs”) established by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (“NIOSH“), and the Threshold Limit Values (“TLVs”) and Biological Exposure Indices (“BEIs”) established by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (“ACGIH“).
The alternative standards are generally more stringent than OSHA’s PELs. For example, the OSHA PEL for perchloroethylene (PCE) is 100 parts per million, while the Cal/OSHA PEL and the ACGIH TLV for PCE are both 25 parts per million.
Even though the alternative PELs are not federally enforceable, they may encourage state regulators to adopt the stricter exposure limits. Even without official state adoption of the stricter exposure limits, OSHA’s endorsement of those limits could encourage regulators to press for more stringent cleanup standards at contaminated sites, and could broaden the scope of conditions recognized as problematic in Phase I and Phase II due diligence reviews. OSHA’s recognition of the stricter exposure limits could also increase pressure on employers to adopt stricter voluntary standards for chemical exposure in the workplace. As recently discussed on our blog, similar consequences could follow from other agencies’ actions with respect to chemical exposure, such as the New York State Department of Health’s recently-issued guidance revising the maximum recommended concentration of PCE in indoor air to 30 mcg/m3, or 4.4 parts per billion.