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Asbestos Standard:
Good News

UE News, October 1994

SOME GOOD NEWS from OSHA: the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration in mid-August announced its new revised asbestos standard, which cuts in half the legally allowed permissible exposure levels for all workers.

Readers of this column know that in recent months I have been critical of President Clinton’s OSHA. Those concerns haven’t changed, but the new asbestos standard is a positive step forward. OSHA made this improvement despite a major campaign by the asbestos industry and its academic allies to weaken or remove federal regulations from chrysotile asbestos.

The standard reduces permissible exposure from 0.2 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter of air (0.2 fibers/cc) to 0.1 fibers/cc, averaged over an 8-hour workshift. There is no safe level of exposure to any cancer agent such as asbestos, but this standard would reduce worker illness from asbestos to less than 4 cases per 1,000 workers, half the current illness rate.

The new standard also establishes for the first time a short-term upper limit of exposure — a so-called excursion limit — of 1.0 fibers/cc. This level of dust exposure can never be exceeded during any 30-minute period during the work day.

In addition, the standard provides other worker health protections such as more warning signs and labels, and improved hazard communication and training for workers whose first language is not English. Also, if respirators must be worn, workers are given some choice about the type of respirator they wear. In particular, workers who must wear respirators can request and must be given powered air-purifying respirators (often called PAPRs) instead of the usual, negative-pressure face masks.

Below are some other provisions of the OSHA asbestos standard:

  • Initial Monitoring. Employers must now sample worker exposure in asbestos dust areas to check that levels are below the 8-hour permissible exposure level (PEL) and below the 30-minute excursion limit. Employers can rely on previous measurements only if they were made after March 31, 1992.

  • Engineering Controls. Employers must reduce asbestos dust levels through engineering controls and changed work practices. Only if this fails to reduce levels to below the PEL and/or the excursion limit can respirators be used.

  • Employee Rotation. Employers can not use work rotation as a means of compliance with this standard. That is, employers cannot just have workers work in high asbestos areas without respirators until they reach their exposure limit, and then move them out of the asbestos job and rotate other workers in.

  • Respirators. Respirators can be used only while engineering controls and changed work practices are in the process of being put into place; during occasional work operations such as maintenance and repairs, during emergencies, and when engineering and work practice controls have been put into place and are not sufficient to reduce levels below the legal limit.

  • Frequency of Monitoring. If asbestos dust levels exceed the PEL and/or excursion limit, or if they "may reasonably expected" to exceed these, personal monitoring must be carried out at least every six months.

  • Notification of Monitoring. All exposure monitoring results must be posted or sent in writing to employees within 15 working days after the employer receives them.

  • Regulated Areas. Areas where the PEL and/or the excursion limit are exceeded must be marked off, with limited access to these areas. Workers are not allowed to eat, drink or chew tobacco or gum in these areas.

  • Worker Training. Workers in areas at or above the PEL and/or excursion limit must be given initial training and annual retraining. Workers who perform "housekeeping operations" such as janitors in facilities which contain asbestos materials, must receive an asbestos awareness training course.

  • Warning Signs and Labels. On the approaches to all regulated areas and within the regulated areas, warning signs must be posted. Raw materials, mixtures, scrap, waste and debris which contain at least one percent asbestos must be labeled unless the asbestos fibers have been treated with a binder or bonding agent to eliminate dust.

  • Hand Tools. Hand tools used on materials containing asbestos and which can generate dust must be fitted with local exhaust ventilation.

  • Medical Testing. Exposed workers must receive annual medical examinations. They must be given chest x-rays at least once a year if they are above age 45 and have been exposed to asbestos more than 10 years, or at least once every two years if between 35 and 45 years and exposed for more than 10 years. All others who are exposed must receive an x-ray at least once every five years.

  • Effective Date. This standard became effective Oct. 11, 1994. Various specific provisions do not become effective until January until April 1995, such as respiratory protection, worker training and establishing regulated areas.

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