March 15, 2015 / Andrew Brown

Are Your Occupational Exposure Limits Outdated?

In the United States, most of the occupational exposure limits established by the federal government were put in place in 1970 and have never been updated. “It's a broken system. We've got a regulatory body in the U.S. that doesn't have any funding to develop exposure limits. Any time they have tried, they've been sued by industry because the process wasn't rigorous enough or because compliance was infeasible. And they've been sued by labor because the values they developed weren't protective enough,” says John Mikan, owner of consultancy Experien Health Sciences Inc.

So how do you fix a broken system? That’s the basis of OELs as the Ultimate Product Risk Management Tool - A Call To Action, an education session Mikan will lead at Stewardship 2015.

“It will bring the industrial hygiene community and the product stewardship community together in one room, to examine a topic that's common to both professions,” says Mikan. “Both will walk away with a better appreciation for how important occupational exposure limits are in terms of managing product risk.”

For Mikan, the role of chemical producers and their product stewards in setting OELs has never been more important. “You can have a pile of toxicological studies on the chemical, but then you somehow have to put that into practice, and the exposure limit is really the tool that's used to put data into practice into the workplace,” says Mikan. “It's how we demonstrate that we're not exposing people to levels that are harmful. And I think a lot of product stewardship professionals probably don't have a full appreciation for how important those exposure limits are.”

But won’t setting limits open the industry to lawsuits? “My response is, there's a lot more data available in the public domain than there was 10 years ago. Anybody can pull the tox data for a lot of these chemicals and say 'Hey, this says here this is a carcinogen, but the exposure limit for this chemical is 20 years old and at the time nobody knew it was a carcinogen, so don't we need to reevaluate the exposure limit,’” says Mikan. “To me, you're opening yourself up for a greater lawsuit, because you knew it's a carcinogen. You should have known that the exposure limit was out of date, and you should have recommended a more protective limit.”

Andrew Brown

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