OSHA changes rule on methylene chloride

Recent changes in the federal safety rule on methylene chloride may make it much easier for employers to comply. Some deadlines for compliance have been extended, and changes may make it possible for some employers to avoid respirator use.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently amended the 1997 methylene chloride standard, largely in response to a request by the United Auto Workers union. One modification adds temporary medical removal benefits for employees who are temporarily removed or transferred to another job because of a medical determination that exposure to methylene chloride may aggravate or contribute to the employee’s existing skin, heart, liver, or neurological disease.

The rule affects 92,000 firms employing about 250,000 workers. Methylene chloride vapors can cause cancer and worsen cardiac disease.

Other changes involve the start-up dates by which some employers using methylene chloride must achieve the permissible exposure limits by using engineering controls. As originally enacted, the rule required companies with fewer than 20 employees to complete installation of engineering controls by April 10, 2000. Larger employers originally had earlier deadlines, but now the rule has been revised to allow some employers with 20 to 49 employees to also wait until the April 10, 2000, deadline.

That deadline change applies to employers using methylene chloride in these instances:

o furniture refinishing;

o aircraft paint stripping;

o formulation of products containing methylene chloride;

o use of methylene chloride-based adhesives for boat building and repair;

o recreational vehicle manufacturing;

o van conversion or upholstering;

o construction work involving the restoration and preservation of buildings;

o painting and paint removal;

o cabinet making;

o floor refinishing or resurfacing.

OSHA also is granting shorter extensions of the existing engineering control deadlines for certain larger employers. Most of these changes allow employers 12 to 24 months more time than was given in the original standard.

Another modification defers the requirement to use respirators to achieve the eight-hour time-weighted average permissible exposure limit of 25 ppm until the engineer control deadlines have passed. This is a very important change because it will enable some employers to avoid respirator use entirely. The only respirators effective against methylene chloride are supplied air respirators, which are relatively expensive. OSHA says it is better for employers to use their limited resources on permanent engineering controls.

In the interim period, employers must meet the short-term exposure limit of 125 ppm over a 15-minute period by using some combination of engineering controls, work practice controls, and/or respirator use. They also must institute feasible work practices to lower exposure levels.