Exposure Limits Carry Risks for Workers

toxic danger sign

OSHA’s current permissible exposure limits (PEL) for hazardous chemicals are out of date, and they’re not adequate for ensuring protection of worker health. OSHA agrees.

Most of OSHA’s PELs were issued shortly after adoption of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act in 1970, and 95% of them have not been updated since that time. And, although there are thousands of chemicals used every day by American workers, OSHA has exposure limits for fewer than 500. As a result, workers are being exposed to levels of chemicals that are legal, but not safe.

An investigative journalism piece from The Center for Public Integrity, “Unequal Risk“, examines the relationship between cancer risks and OSHA exposure limits. The analysis estimates excess risk over time: If 1,000 workers are exposed to a chemical’s legal limit over their entire careers, how many will likely get cancer as a result?

This interactive chart compares the estimated risks at OSHA limits to the risks at often-tighter (but voluntary) Threshold Limit Values recommended by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, a nonprofit that develops guidelines and updates it’s TLV’s regularly.

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So even if your exposure is below the OSHA legal limit, you might want to make sure that limit is actually a safe one.