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OSHA Issues Final Standard on Hexavalent Chromium


"OSHA has worked hard to produce a final standard that substantially reduces the significant health risks for employees exposed to hexavalent chromium. Our new standard protects workers to the extent feasible, while providing employers, especially small employers, adequate time to transition to the new requirements," said Jonathan L. Snare, acting assistant secretary for occupational safety and health.

The new standard lowers OSHA's permissible exposure limit (PEL) for hexavalent chromium, and for all Cr(VI) compounds, from 52 to 5 micrograms of Cr(VI) per cubic meter of air as an 8-hour time- weighted average. The standard also includes provisions relating to preferred methods for controlling exposure, respiratory protection, protective work clothing and equipment, hygiene areas and practices, medical surveillance, hazard communication and recordkeeping.

More than half a million Americans are exposed to the metal at work, including steel workers, welders, chrome platers, and paint and pigment makers. The major health effects associated with exposure to Cr(VI) include lung cancer, nasal septum ulcerations and perforations, skin ulcerations, and allergic and irritant contact dermatitis. By the agency's own estimates, 88 percent of them will receive no additional protection under the new standard because their workplaces already meet it.


Critics say that the new government limits on workplace chromium exposure still leave thousands of metalworkers at some risk from lung cancer. While the new "permissible exposure limit" is about one-tenth the level that has been permitted since the 1940s it remains five times higher than what was proposed by the agency two years ago and 20 times as high as the level that had been sought by activists who filed a lawsuit to force the agency to set a new standard. Activists were especially disappointed given the length of time the agency studied the problem and the nine years it has been since the agency last set any standard for a hazardous workplace chemical.

The agency cited technical challenges to achieving lower exposures and effects on the industry's bottom line as the main reason for going with the five-microgram limit instead of the one-microgram limit it had initially proposed.

"After a careful analysis, we determined that . . . five is the lowest level that is feasible both technologically and economically," said Jonathan L. Snare, acting assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, speaking to reporters on a conference call.

Reaction was swift and critical from environmental activists, union officials and public health policy analysts. Public Citizen, which filed the lawsuit that eventually forced the agency to issue the standard, called the new regulation "seriously inadequate" and announced that it would file a lawsuit challenging the new limit. For 13 years, Public Citizen has campaigned for a permissible exposure limit of .25 micrograms per cubic meter. The agency itself estimates 10 to 45 lung cancer deaths per 1,000 workers over a lifetime at the 5 micrograms per cubic meter level (compared to the .53-2.3 deaths per 1,000 workers over a lifetime at the Public Citizen-requested standard of .25 micrograms per cubic meter). Even the now-abandoned 1 microgram level proposed by OSHA in October 2004 would have led to 2.1-9.1 lung cancer deaths per 1,000 workers over a lifetime. Thus, hundreds of extra lung cancer deaths will occur if the weak OSHA-proposed standard is allowed to stand.

But some industry representatives also expressed dissatisfaction, saying that they, too, were at least considering suing OSHA -- for setting an unreasonably strict standard. "This is going to cause significant upheaval within our industry," said Kate McMahon-Lohrer, a lawyer with Collier Shannon Scott, speaking for the stainless steel industry. She said OSHA vastly overestimated the percentage of companies already complying with the new standard and underestimated the rule's cost. "This will cause a significant number of factory closures or outsourcing to foreign soils, and it will have a very real impact on import penetration in this country's steel markets," McMahon-Lohrer predicted.

OSHA officials argued that the new lower limit is a sensible balance between current reality and a perfect world. They acknowledged that the new limit will still allow 10 to 45 excess deaths from lung cancer for every 1,000 workers exposed to the metal over a 45-year period. But they said as many as 145 of the lung cancer deaths that occur annually as a result of today's actual exposures will be prevented under the new rule, which is to be phased in over the next four years.

"OSHA chemical standards are so rare it's like Halley's Comet," said David Michaels, a George Washington University professor of public policy who, with Lurie, led a recently published study indicating that industry-sponsored scientists had withheld and manipulated data about chromium's toxicity in an effort to influence OSHA's deliberations.

Mike Wright, director of health, safety and environment for the United Steelworkers, accused the industry of "playing fast and loose with the data on risk" and said "many dedicated public servants" at OSHA were increasingly being overruled by political appointees beholden to business.

"The consequence of OSHA's decision," Wright said, "will be that workers will die."

Other rules in other countries
Since hexavalent chromium is considered to be carcinogen, there is not a maximum permissible concentration value (MAK). Instead there is a technical feasible reference value (TRK) that should not be reached in the working environment. The TRK values are specific for the type of environment:
Arc welding: 0.1 mg/m3
Preparation of soluble Cr(VI) compounds: 0.1 mg/m3
All other working environments: 0.05 mg/m3

 Related Information:

OSHA: Complete Text of Final Rule
 OSHA: Safety and Health Topics: Hexavalent Chromium
OSHA: Standards related to Hexavalent Chromium
OSHA News, January 10, 2004: OSHA Proposes Revised Rule on Hexavalent Chromium
David Michaels, Celeste Monforton, Peter Lurie, Selected science: an industry campaign to undermine an OSHA hexavalent chromium standard, Environ. Health, 5/5 (2006) DOI: 10.1186/1476-069X-5-5
OSHA: Hexavalent Chromium Settlement between OSHA and the Surface Finishing Industry Council (SFIC)

Related News

CCH Inc., August 16, 2006: Hexavalent Chromium standard’s recordkeeping provisions approved
EVISA News, October 4, 2006: OSHA Issues Hexavalent Chromium Guidance for Small Businesses
EVISA News, April 12, 2007: OSHA Agrees to Monitor Worker Exposure to Hexavalent Chromium-Containing Cement

last time modified: March 6, 2024


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