The wheels of regulation can turn slowly at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, very slowly. Take the case of hexavalent chromium.
In 1976, a separate research group, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, asked that an emergency standard be written to limit workers' exposure to the chemical compound, which is used to manufacture pigments and dyes, tan leather and make stainless steel and chrome plating.
At the time of its request to OSHA, the institute recommended that hexavalent chromium be considered carcinogenic and a cause of liver and kidney tumors and central nervous system effects. Since then, extensive testing has shown it also causes lung cancer, asthma, skin ulcerations and contact dermatitis in the 1 million workers exposed to it.
Nevertheless, the NIOSH entreaty went unanswered.
In 1993, Public Citizen and the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union petitioned OSHA to lower the acceptable exposure limit. The agency denied the petition but said in a March 8, 1994, letter that it anticipated having the preliminary stage of a rule completed no later than March 1995. A year later, the agency declared that the exposure had to be lowered.
Yet, there was more delay. Only after two lawsuits and a court order issued in April 2003, which essentially told the agency "enough is enough," did the wheels of the regulatory machinery begin to turn in a meaningful way.
On Oct. 4, OSHA issued three proposals that would cover general industry, construction and shipyards, lowering the permissible exposure from the current standard of 52 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 1 microgram on an eight-hour, time-weighted average -- a limit that is four times higher than what Public Citizen requested in its petition. The proposal also calls for controlling exposure through engineering controls, protective clothing and respiratory protection.
The agency has until January 2006 to complete the rule under a timetable worked out with court supervision.
Why the long and tortuous road?
The saga of the hexavalent chromium rule is not unlike other OSHA rules that take years to complete and often involve legal challenges by labor or management when they finally are issued.