Feb. 27, 2006

Public Citizen Will Sue OSHA Over Inadequate Hexavalent Chromium Standard

Statement of Dr. Peter Lurie, Deputy Director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) new standard to reduce worker exposure to hexavalent chromium is seriously inadequate and will not protect the safety of hundreds of thousands of workers who are exposed to the metal in the workplace. OSHA will publish tomorrow in the Federal Register a final standard designed to reduce worker exposure to the carcinogenic metal used in chrome plating, stainless steel welding and the production of chromate pigments and dyes.

The new standard will lower the permissible exposure limit for hexavalent chromium from 52 to 5 micrograms of chromium per cubic meter of air, which is still an unsafe level for workers exposed to the carcinogen. 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.  

Additionally, the great majority of chromium-exposed workers work at sites that are already in compliance with the new proposed standard. OSHA has denied additional protections to these workers apparently because it may be more difficult for a small minority of employers to meet a lower standard.  This lowest common denominator approach to rulemaking – in which all chromium-using sectors need only meet the standard that can be met by the sector with the greatest difficulty complying with a stronger standard – leaves OSHA highly vulnerable to a court challenge because the agency has failed to set a limit that eliminates significant health risks to the maximum extent technologically and economically feasible in each affected industry, as required by law.

The only reason this final rule was issued was that Public Citizen sued the agency. Because the resultant rule is so weak that the lives of chromium-exposed workers will remain endangered, we have no choice but to bring the agency back to court again. OSHA has issued no chemical health standard since 1997.

Last week, Public Citizen and the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy revealed that that the chromium industry had hidden from OSHA crucial study data that support a stricter standard for workplace exposure; Public Citizen provided these data to the agency last year.

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