At long last OSHA published a new standard in the Feb. 28 Federal Register that covers occupational exposure to hexavalent chromium in general industry, construction and shipyards. The new standard lowers OSHA's permissible exposure limit (PEL) for hexavalent chromium (Cr(VI)), and for all Cr(VI) compounds, from 52 to 5 micrograms per cubic meter of air as an 8-hour time-weighted average.

The standard, which includes provisions relating to preferred methods for controlling exposure, respiratory protection, protective work clothing and equipment, hygiene areas and practices, medical surveillance, hazard communication and recordkeeping, was issued as a result of a court-ordered deadline.

In April 2003, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ordered OSHA to promulgate a standard governing workplace exposure to hexavalent chromium, ordering the agency to publish a final standard by January of this year, a deadline that was eventually extended to Feb. 28. The Court issued the ruling based on a recommendation from a court-appointed mediator trying to resolve a suit from Public Citizen’s Health Research Group seeking to require OSHA to publish a new standard on chromium.

“Our new standard protects workers to the extent feasible, while providing employers, especially small employers, adequate time to transition to the new requirements," said Jonathan L. Snare, acting assistant secretary for occupational safety and health.

Public Citizen, the group that originally sued OSHA for dragging its feet in issuing a final hexavalent chromium standard, will sue the agency again, claiming the new PEL is not low enough.

“OSHA’s 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,” said Dr. Peter Lurie, Deputy Director, Public Citizen’s Health Research Group.

The new PEL of 5 micrograms of chromium per cubic meter of air is still an unsafe level for workers exposed to the carcinogen, said Lurie. Public Citizen, he said, has wanted a permissible exposure limit of 0.25 micrograms per cubic meter.

“The only reason this final rule was issued was that Public Citizen sued the agency,” said Lurie. “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.”

It is estimated that 10 to 45 lung cancer deaths will occur per 1,000 workers over a lifetime at the 5 micrograms per cubic meter level. At the Public Citizen-requested standard of 0.25 micrograms per cubic meter only 0.53-2.3 deaths would occur per 1,000 workers over a lifetime.

In a proposed standard in October 2004, OSHA proposed that the PEL for hexavalent chromium be lowered to 1 microgram of chromium per cubic meter of air. But in the final standard, the agency determined that a PEL of 5 micrograms is the lowest level that is technologically and economically feasible for industries impacted by this standard.

The United Steelworkers union expressed outrage at OSHA's decision to set the new standard for hexavalent chromium five times higher than the agency originally proposed.

"OSHA's decision guarantees that many more workers will get lung cancer," said Michael Wright, the USW's Director of Health, Safety and Environment.

"We had to go to court to force OSHA to set a new chromium standard in the first place," Wright said. "It looks like we will have to go back to court to get a standard that truly protects workers."

While apparently not over yet, the debate surrounding exposure to hexavalent chromium dates back to July 1993 when the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Unions (OCAW) (which subsequently was succeeded by the USW in a 2005 merger) and Public Citizen's Health Research Group petitioned OSHA to promulgate an emergency temporary standard (ETS) to lower the PEL for Cr(VI) compounds.

OSHA is providing a transition period for employers to implement the technologies and practices needed for compliance to the new standard. The effective date of the standard is 90 days from publication — May 30 — and the start-up date for all provisions, except engineering controls, is 180 days from the effective date (one year for employers with fewer than 20 employees). Start-up for engineering controls is four years from the effective date for all employers.