Why Accurate Data is Critical for Managing Risk, Protecting Worker Health, and Avoiding Negative Headlines

An industrial worker wears respiratory protection to avoid chemical exposure on the job.

In late 2016, the Toronto Star launched the first in a series of riveting articles that sought to expose a tragedy that was largely unknown to many people in the surrounding area. The article chronicled the plight of former employees at a local division of a global manufacturing giant, many of whom, now retired, were battling terminal cancer. Most of the former employees pointed to the same alleged cause of their illness: successive years of chemical exposure to nearly 3,000 different chemicals used in the manufacture of diesel engines at the plant. Twenty of those chemicals are classified as known carcinogens. And company records seemed to confirm that belief. 

According to the article, a mortality study commissioned by the employer found that cancer rates amongst former employees were between 60% and 130% higher than the general population. Obviously, something wasn’t right at the plant. Yet despite reams of evidence, the article revealed how the company had largely avoided liability for the chemical exposures, and that the former employees, or in some cases their surviving relatives, were now in a battle to have the provincial worker’s compensation board recognize their illnesses as work-related, often with little success.

Majority of Work-Related Fatalities are the Result of Occupational Diseases Linked to Chemical Exposures

While this story is certainly tragic, it’s unfortunately not an isolated event. The International Labor Organization (ILO) reports that of the roughly 2.8 million work-related fatalities that occur globally each year, nearly 73% of these deaths are the result of occupational diseases linked to exposures to chemical agents in the workplace.

Stories like these are forcing many governments to take notice of these growing occupational illness rates.  Consequently, regulatory agencies in many countries have begun to amend existing standards governing thousands of hazard agents, very often seeking to revise the maximum exposure limits for specific agents, many of which haven’t been changed in nearly 50 years.

The US Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) is one of those regulators taking notice. In 2016, OSHA issued its final rule to its Crystalline Silica Standards, establishing a new permissible exposure limit of 50 μg/m3 of air as an 8-hour time-weighted average. This change, supported by recent epidemiological research, was anticipated to drastically reduce the risk of silicosis and mesothelioma (lung cancer) in the over 2.3 million US workers exposed to silica on a daily basis. Similarly, in August 2020, OSHA amended its Beryllium Standards for general industry, shipyards and construction, reducing the permissible exposure limit of the agent from 2 μg/m3 to 0.2 μg/m3, and strengthening requirements for engineering controls, respirator use, and medical exams related to beryllium exposure.

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While these revisions will certainly offer enhanced protection for workers exposed to these hazard agents on the job, these regulatory changes also highlight a practical challenge for employers: how can your organization reasonably stay apprised of changes to exposure limits for thousands of chemical agents in use in your workplace to ensure you’re able to remain in compliance?

Most regulatory bodies set multiple occupational exposure limits (OELs) for hazard agents, including time-weighted average exposure limits (TWA) for either an 8, 10 or 12-hour period, short-term exposure limits (STEL) that define the maximum allowable exposure in any 15-min period, and even Ceiling (C) limits that dictate that maximum concentration to which a worker may be exposed at any time.

Employers are responsible to conduct periodic risk-stratified exposure monitoring to help determine the degree that workers are exposed to a specific chemical agent, by comparing recorded monitoring values to these limits. Failure to control chemical exposure below these values will increase the risk of illness, and open up organizations to significant regulatory penalties. 

In January 2020, a Wisconsin-based manufacturer was fined nearly $200,000 for failing to control worker exposures to lead and copper dust found at concentrations in excess of the permissible limits. Industrial hygiene software solutions that enable organizations to create sampling plans, collect and analyze monitoring data, and compare that data to recorded OELs simplifies the process of managing industrial hygiene risks and help employers prioritize actions to prevent the onset of occupational illness.

What Happens if the Limits We Use to Assess Chemical Exposures are Wrong?

We’ve mentioned earlier that jurisdictions globally are constantly assessing and revising standards governing the control of hazardous agents based on new research studies. Consequently, a single amended regulation can alter 5-6 different OELs for a single chemical agent. For an organization that uses 500 chemicals within its operations, for instance, they may face the possibility of having to maintain a register of nearly 3,000 different OELs at any given time.  If that same organization operates across 10 different countries each with their own regulations, the possible list of OELs could increase to nearly 30,000! 

So, for EHS professionals tasked to ensure that occupational chemical exposures are accurately assessed and prioritized for corrective action to reduce risk of illness and legal liability, these OEL registers are critical. Maintaining these registers, however, isn’t a simple task. It involves:

  • staying atop of regulatory changes in each of the regions your organization operates
  • sourcing the regulations
  • researching the changes (i.e. literally reading through pages upon pages of quasi-legal jargon)
  • assessing its applicability to your operations
  • updating the OEL register, where needed

For an employer that uses hundreds or thousands of chemical agents, across multiple geographies, this can easily create an administrative nightmare! And this manual validation process isn’t only extremely time-consuming, it isn’t even error-proof. 

Regulatory changes can still be missed in any human-driven review process, and any errant keystroke when manually updating OELs for an agent can result in risk underestimation, and ultimately, a harmful chemical exposure that can lead to worker illness and/or regulatory non-compliance.

The Value of Regulatory Content Partners  

Fortunately, many EHS software vendors are partnering with third-party global regulatory content providers to simplify and streamline the process of keeping OEL registers up-to-date and accurate. Through integration, organizations can not only access the regulatory libraries of content providers directly through their EHS software platform, providing access to regulations for thousands of different agents at their fingertips, but can also automate OEL register updates in their industrial hygiene solution directly from the content provider’s system.

These updates can be completed often with either a click of a button, or programmed to occur at a scheduled frequency (i.e. quarterly). These integrated services eliminate a huge administrative burden from the hands of EHS professionals – giving them time back to focus on other critical priorities. Plus, this also gives the business greater confidence in the effectiveness of actions taken to control potentially hazardous chemical exposures, while reducing the risk of legal non-compliance.  

Final Thoughts  

I’d love to say that the former employees suffering from work-related cancers in the Toronto Star series received the justice they were looking for. Unfortunately, many did not. But the articles did achieve a clear objective: they not only raised attention to the often under-reported risks of chemical exposures in the workplace and the need for regulatory reform, but they also reinforced, ever more clearly, that reducing the risk of occupational illness starts with a comprehensive and effective industrial hygiene approach, one that allows us to assess the degree of workplace chemical exposure with accuracy and reliability, so we can make the best decisions possible to protect the people that make our organizations successful. 

Seeking reliable solutions to help manage the details of your industrial hygiene and chemical management programs are critical, and just may help your organizations avoid being the one called out in a multi-part exposé in your local newspaper in the near future.

Next Steps

To learn more about how to effectively mitigate chemical exposure risks and keep your employees safe, read our eBook, 5 Keys to Best-in-Class Chemical Management, co-authored with our friends at Verisk 3E:

Chemical Management and Chemical Data Reporting Best Practices