OSHA: Employers must step up to chem hazards
Hospitals face issues with anti-cancer drugs
Federal regulators have failed to adequately protect workers from chemical hazards, so employers need to step up and do it on their own.
That was a message that came from David Michaels, MD, MPH, himself, the administrator of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA has launched a website to provide resources on eliminating and substituting hazardous chemicals and to find lower recommended exposure limits for hundreds of chemicals. For example, California has adopted lower permissible exposure limits (PELs).
"Our workplace exposure limits are dangerously out of date," Michaels said in a teleconference. "New scientific and industrial data and developments in technology clearly indicate that in many instances these mandatory limits are not protective enough."
Most of the chemicals with PEL limits are used in industrial settings. But information on substitution and lowering exposure levels is important in efforts to promote safer, greener cleaning chemicals in hospitals, says Seema Wadhwa, LEED AP, director of the Healthier Hospital Initiative, a sustainability effort based in Reston, VA.
Thirteen hospital systems are sponsoring the Healthier Hospital Initiative, and promoting greener cleaning chemicals as a part of six "challenges," which also includes efforts to use less energy, serve healthier food and produce less waste.
"Nurses have the highest rate of work-related asthma," says Wadhwa. "Environmental service workers housekeepers have the second-highest. It’s clearly a highly exposed workforce."
Healthier Hospitals Initiative also provides a toolkit and success stories of hospitals that have switched to "greener" chemicals. About 800 hospitals have joined the initiative.
However, substitution, elimination and even lowering exposure levels will not be possible for hundreds of hazardous chemicals used in hospitals. Anti-neoplastic drugs are designed to be toxic and must be prescribed based on the needs of the patient, notes Thomas H. Connor, PhD, research biologist with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s Division of Applied Research and Technology and an expert on hazardous drugs and occupational safety.
"They’re prescribed based on their mechanism of action, so you’re not going to look to something else," he says.
Employee training and use of personal protection equipment are important to reduce exposures, he says. NIOSH will release an updated list of hazardous chemicals in early 2014.
[Editor’s note: The OSHA chemical hazard resources are available at www.osha.gov/dsg/safer_chemicals/index.html and www.osha.gov/dsg/annotated-pels/index.html. Information on the Healthier Hospitals Initiative is available at http://healthierhospitals.org/.]