Long-Term Chemical Hazards Pose Significant Challenges for Workplace Safety Agency

chemical beaker

The New York Times published a front-page story over the weekend focusing on the problems the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) faces in trying to protect workers from latent hazards posed by chemical exposures at work.

The Times story focuses on the health hazards of n-propyl bromide (NPB), which is used as an ingredient in adhesives, to clean metal surfaces, and to remove manufacturing residue from electronic circuit boards. NPB use has increased as a substitute for methylene chloride, which OSHA regulated as a cancer-causing chemical in 1997. OSHA has long been aware that NPB is at least as hazardous as methylene chloride. Substitutes for NPB are available, but NPB manufacturers claim they are more expensive and would constitute an outsized burden on “small” business if required.

The events described in the Times article are another example of the concerns of industry taking precedence over the health of workers. Federal OSHA – and the state plan in North Carolina – have tools to limit exposures to dangerous chemicals and to require that employers provide workers with protective equipment. But the process for setting standards to limit toxic exposures in the workplace is broken.

OSHA should be able to move forward to protect workers exposed to toxins when new hazards arise. Unfortunately, the agency would be hard pressed to do so under the current regulatory system, in which the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) can demand multiple cost-benefit analyses, and industry lobbyists and trade associations meet frequently with OIRA staff and have multiple opportunities to challenge new standards through regulatory flexibility analyses and small business review panels.

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