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NIOSH develops exposure management strategy for harmful chemicals

Chemical safety

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has released a strategy for managing potentially harmful chemicals that would assign them into categories to help protect workers.

A vast number of chemical substances in commerce do not have occupational exposure limits, meaning that workers may be exposed to these substances at potentially harmful levels, John Howard, director of NIOSH, said in a publication released Wednesday.

Occupational exposure limits are a “central component” of safety and health programs because they serve as indicators of hazards and triggers for implementing control strategies, but in their absence a process called occupational exposure banding can quickly and accurately assign chemical substances into categories or “bands” based on their associated health outcomes and on potency considerations, he said.

The NIOSH banding process is not meant to replace occupational exposure limits, but to be a “starting point to inform risk management decisions for controlling chemical substances” that do not have such limits, according to Mr. Howard.

The Toxic Substances Control Act Chemical Substance Inventory currently contains more than 85,000 chemicals that are commercially available, but only about 1,000 have been limits, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Occupational hygienists and safety professionals use tools such as safety data sheets, exposure monitoring, medical surveillance and toxicity testing to make risk management decisions to protect workers in the absence of such limits, but one of the challenges is that they have no decision-making framework to screen the most relevant data when assessing chemical substances and developing exposure control guidance despite the myriad sources of data on chemical substances, according to the publication.

The banding uses qualitative and quantitative hazard information to identify potential exposure ranges or categories and NIOSH’s process seeks to create a “consistent and documented process with a decision logic to characterize chemical hazards so that timely, well-informed risk management decisions can be made for chemical substances that lack” occupational exposure limits.

“Using hazard-based categories to communicate potential health concerns serves to signal workers and employers of the need for risk management,” the publication stated.


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