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Science, Policy & Risk Perspectives: EPA’s Worker Protection Decisions Must Be Supported by Best Available Science and Relevant Exposure Scenarios

by Richard A. Becker Ph.D. DABT
Science, Policy, & Risk Perspectives - Advancing regulatory science and policy

Whether you’re working in your garden, varnishing your furniture, or cleaning your toilet, most of us know that chemicals can be dangerous when used improperly and that it’s important to follow instructions on how to use them safely.

It’s no different in the workplace. That’s why the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to provide workers with both training and information about the potential hazards and risks associated with the chemicals and substances in their workplace. This includes educating workers on how to identify chemical hazards and precautionary measures taken to protect workers. For specific chemicals, OSHA also establishes exposure limits to minimize worker exposure and identifies requirements, such as the use of personal protection equipment, engineering controls, standard operating procedures, training programs, and notification requirements, in the workplace.

What’s probably less well known is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also plays a role in protecting workers against potentially harmful exposures to chemicals. Under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), EPA must evaluate chemicals to determine whether they present unreasonable risk under their “intended, known, or reasonably foreseen” circumstances of manufacturing, processing, distribution, use, or disposal. If there is workplace exposure to a chemical EPA is evaluating, EPA must evaluate the potential risks to workers from that exposure.

It’s been five years since enactment of the 2016 TSCA amendments. Over the course of these last five years, ACC has provided extensive comments to EPA, along with constructive feedback aimed at ensuring the agency meets both the letter and intent of TSCA’s statutory and regulatory requirements to apply the best available science in determining the potential hazards, exposures, and risk of chemicals. While EPA has made considerable progress in meeting the law’s new requirements, the agency has also lacked sufficient understanding of the workplace environment or relevant exposure conditions. 

TSCA specifically requires EPA to evaluate a chemical’s hazards and relevant conditions of use that can lead to exposures. EPA cannot disregard typical conditions of use. Yet, in many of the initial TSCA evaluations, some of the agency’s methods for estimating worker exposures were based on unrealistic assumptions that did not reflect actual workplace conditions of use and routine worker protection procedures. Consequently, EPA drew a number of flawed conclusions that some exposures were inadequately controlled, presented unreasonable risk to workers, and that additional risk management actions need to be considered. 

In the Summer of 2021, EPA announced that it plans to revisit certain aspects, particularly regarding worker exposure, of some of the first set of 10 TSCA chemical risk evaluations developed under the new provisions of TSCA that were enacted in 2016. The agency now has an opportunity to re-evaluate its flawed methods and conclusions and incorporate relevant and realistic exposure information as the foundation for its analysis and conclusions.

Despite acknowledging that “many companies do provide and require PPE for their workers, comply with applicable OSHA standards, and go well beyond what OSHA requires to keep their employees safe,” EPA has also recently stated that it will not consider information on the use of PPE, or other ways that industry protects its workers, in the risk evaluation phase and, instead, wait to consider this information in the risk management process. The law requires EPA to evaluate risk, taking into account the specific conditions of use, which the law defines as the circumstances under which a chemical substance is intended, known, or reasonably foreseen to be manufactured, processed, distributed in commerce, used, or disposed of. Under TSCA, EPA must integrate and assess available information on hazards and exposures for the conditions of use of the chemical substance. To comply with these provisions, EPA must include in TSCA risk evaluations those specific conditions of use in which PPE is employed and/or specifically required by other federal regulations.

The agency should not compound its mistakes of the past. EPA needs to consider actual workplace conditions in its review of the initial 10 risk evaluations. And in future risk evaluations, EPA should incorporate legally required worker protection programs and procedures already in place under OSHA’s requirements.

If EPA is re-doing these initial risk evaluations, EPA should, as required by law, base its TSCA risk evaluations of chemicals on “best available science” about a chemical’s hazards, exposures, and relevant conditions of use. Best available science means EPA must use the most up-to-date knowledge about how chemicals act, what the actual exposures are, and how those exposures are currently managed. Under best available science, EPA must use the most current scientific approaches for determining whether all those factors – taken together -- present unreasonable risk to workers, requiring additional controls in the workplace.  We understand EPA is now working more closely with its OSHA and National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) counterparts to better understand workplace exposures and industrial hygiene (IH) practices. These are encouraging indications and ACC urges EPA to increase and enhance the IH expertise in its risk evaluation program.

In short, EPA must consider more complete, up-to-date information about the actual conditions of use in the workplace, and EPA must use the most current scientific tools to analyze this information.

American Chemistry Council

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) represents the leading companies engaged in the multibillion-dollar business of chemistry. ACC members apply the science of chemistry to make innovative products, technologies and services that make people's lives better, healthier and safer. ACC is committed to improved environmental, health, safety and security performance through Responsible Care®; common sense advocacy addressing major public policy issues; and health and environmental research and product testing. ACC members and chemistry companies are among the largest investors in research and development, and are advancing products, processes and technologies to address climate change, enhance air and water quality, and progress toward a more sustainable, circular economy.

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