Court Orders OSHA to Reexamine Formaldehyde Standard

Occupational Hazards, August 1989 | Go to article overview

Court Orders OSHA to Reexamine Formaldehyde Standard


Court orders OSHA to reexamine formaldehyde standard

Court orders OSHA to reexamine formaldehyde standard: A Federal appeals court has labeled as "insufficient" OSHA's explanation for imposing a permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 1 part per million (ppm) for formaldehyde.

Ruling in the case of United Auto Workers, et al. v. OSHA, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit also rejected OSHA's reasoning in not including a "medical removal protection" (MRP) requirement in the formaldehyde standard, which would maintain exposed workers' earnings and seniority while they undergo rehabilitation. The court remanded both issues back to the agency for reconsideration, but rejected all other claims made by the filing unions.

At issue was OSHA's current formaldehyde standard, which establishes a 1 ppm PEL and a short-term exposure limit (STEL) of 2 ppm. Questions about whether those levels were too high arose because estimates of risk have been shown to be "all over the lot," according to the court.

Furthermore, the court questioned OSHA's interpretation of certain key measures of risk -- the "maximum likelihood estimate (MLE)" and the "upper confidence limit (UCL)." The MLE figures, based on an average calculation of risk, were quite low and involved a convex measure of risk. Meanwhile, the UCL figures, based on a risk-averse calculation, were higher and involved a linear measure of risk, the court said.

As for OSHA's failure to include "medical removal protection" requirements in the standard, the court found the agency's explanation "feeble." OSHA had testified that the "nonspecificity of signs and symptoms ... and the quick resolution of effects" made MRP inappropriate. The court found to the contrary, saying, "If this is accurate, affected workers could surely benefit from receiving MRP during the recovery period." Drawing parallels to the Black Lung standard, which does have requirements for MRP, the court said OSHA should reconsider its failure to require MRP.

As for the unions' claim that employers would be unwilling to provide respirators and other protective equipment (as required, when the PEL or STEL is exceeded), the court said the unions presented no evidence that would "undermine the agency belief that employers will obey the regulations governing them." The court also upheld OSHA's "action level" of 0.5 ppm, which triggers requirements for employers to initiate periodic exposure monitoring, annual medical surveillance, and annual training.

United Auto Workers President Owen Bieber hailed the appellate court's decision as "an important step" toward improving worker safety and urged OSHA "to move quickly to set a more protective standard." At presstime, OSHA declined comment on the ruling.

McMillan defends OSHA's approach to ergonomics: Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor-OSHA Alan C. McMillan recently told a House panel that "ergonomics -- the science of matching the workplace and the task to human abilities and limitations -- did not figure significantly in OSHA's activities until the late 1970's..." He added, however, "...we have a vigorous enforcement effort underway, using current regulatory authority.... And we will soon complete development of our long-term strategy, considering both regulatory and nonregulatory approaches."

The chairman of the House Employment and Housing Subcommittee, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif. …

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