The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is reexamining regulations governing respirators, used by hundreds of thousands of workers to guard against hazardous concentrations of substances such as lead, chemicals and cotton dust. In an advance notice of proposed rulemaking in Friday's Federal Register, OSHA asked for comments on a variety of issues, including health and safety concerns and testing procedures.

The current regs were issued in 1971, based on standards developed two years earlier by the American National Standards Institute. The ANSI standards were updated in 1980 but the federal regs were not. Industry has complained that OSHA's current standards are so antiquated that they have discouraged innovative changes. Peg Seminario, an occupational health expert for the AFL-CIO, agreed that the regs are "deficient and in need of improvement." But she said the union is waiting to see if OSHA improves the standard. One concern, she said, "is that OSHA may be attempting to use this standard as a handle to change its policy and allow more reliance on respirators and other personal equipment than on engineering controls."

It is less expensive to equip workers with respirators than curb pollution at its source, and OSHA has indicated it may make it easier for companies to take the cheaper route, which labor argues is never as effective. But OSHA administrator Thorne G. Auchter denied that OSHA's updating of the respirator standard is a backdoor attempt to build a case for relaxing engineering controls in the workplace. "In the future we may address the problem of respirator versus engineering controls, I say 'may' because I have not made a decision on that," Auchter said. But he stressed that the two issues are separate.