OSHA Denies ’93 Oil Mist Petition


The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a letter recently denying a decade-old request by the United Autoworkers to lower limits on exposure levels to metalworking fluid mist.

The agency said it decided not to act because the body of scientific evidence did not make a compelling case that current exposure levels cause serious health problems and because it has more important priorities.

The UAW and the United Steelworkers of America sued the Secretary of Labor in October in an attempt to force OSHA to lower the exposure level limit. Observers said OSHAs letter will probably not affect the case, which is scheduled to be tried in federal appeals court in Philadelphia Jan. 9.

The UAW has long complained that OSHAs current standard – 5 milligrams of oil mist per cubic meter of airduring an eight-hour day – exposes factory workers to a variety of health threats, including cancer, skin ailments and respiratory diseases such as hypersensitivity pneumonitis. In Dec. 1993, the union formally demanded that OSHA take regulatory action.

OSHA Assistant Secretary John Henshaw addressed those claims in a letter that, according to an agency spokesman, was sent to the union in mid-December. Henshaw dismissed the cancer claim by noting that most members of an advisory committee appointed by OSHA in 1997 concluded there was not enough evidence to support arguments that contact with current formulations of metalworking fluids lead to cancer.

Henshaw allowed that a majority of the advisory committee found links between metalworking fluids and dermatitis, as well as non-malignant pulmonary ailments such as asthma and hypersensitivity pneumonitis. But Henshaw added that those problems are relatively rare – a study of Ford plants in the mid-1990s found three to five cases of hypersensitivity pneumonitis per 10,000 workers – and that even the most serious cases are seldom fatal.

The health effects evidence available at this time is not compelling, Henshaw said, adding that the agency believes the promotion of best practices is the best way to protect workers from oil mist.

At the moment, Henshaws letter said, OSHA is focusing on development of regulations for hexavalent chromium, crystalline silica and beryllium, all of which cause fatal and disabling diseases at much higher rates of incidence. For example, OSHA estimates that between 9 and 34 percent of workers exposed to chromium at the current permissible limit will develop lung cancer.

At this time, OSHAs highest regulatory priorities for toxic substance rulemakings are the proposed standards for chromium, silica and beryllium, Henshaw said. Reassigning key personnel to a fourth major toxic substance project would result in substantial delay in completing one or more of these higher priority rules.

OSHAs spokesman said he did not know if the timing of Henshaws letter was due to the pending lawsuit. Jeffrey L. Leiter, legal counsel for the Independent Lubricant Manufacturers Association, said that technically the letter changes the focus of the suit from a question of whether the agency met procedural requirements for responding to the UAW, to the health effects of oil mist. Leiter, who has handled ILMAs request to join the suit as a co-defendant, said the suit would have come down to the substantive issues even if the letter had not been sent.

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