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Workplace Asbestos Regulatory History


All industrial countries now regulate asbestos exposure in the workplace. In the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) started regulating exposure limits in 1971. Throughout the 1970s, as the dangers of asbestos in an air ductasbestos were better understood, the exposure limit was lowered. The scientific, medical, and labor communities (especially the AFL-CIO) were influential in driving these regulations by OSHA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Consumer Safety Product Commission.

OSHA has tightened asbestos regulations several times as more information has become available. OSHA and the EPA both issue regulations on asbestos, but they strive to work together so that the regulations of both agencies are as compatible as is feasible.

When OSHA was first set up, it established a permissible exposure limit (PEL) in workplace air of 12 fibers/cubic centimeter (f/cc) for asbestos. In response to a petition by the AFL-CIO, the agency issued an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) on asbestos on December 7, 1971 that established a PEL of 5 f/cc as an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA) and a peak exposure level of 10 f/cc.

In June 1972, OSHA promulgated a final standard that established an 8-hour TWA PEL of 5 f/cc and a ceiling limit of 10 f/cc. These limits were intended primarily to protect employees against asbestosis, and it was hoped that they would provide some incidental degree of protection against asbestos-induced forms of cancer.

In October 1975, OSHA proposed reducing permissible asbestos levels in the workplace because of strong evidence of asbestos's ill effects and because of advances in monitoring and protective technology. This proposal would have reduced the 8-hour TWA to 0.5 f/cc and imposed a ceiling limit of 5 f/cc for 15 minutes. The 1975 proposal would have applied to all industries except construction.

At that time no separate proposal applicable to the construction industry was developed by the agency. The Advisory Committee for Construction Safety and Health endorsed OSHA's position that any new exposure limits adopted for general industry should also apply to the construction industry.

Objections to the low limit from many quarters caused the agency to relax its proposal and in 1976, OSHA's 8-hour TWA limit was reduced to 2 f/cc.

Better science and stricter exposure standards

However, as scientific evidence of asbestos's hazards continued to mount, the regulatory community continued to be concerned about the limits. In November 1983 OSHA published an ETS for asbestos that further lowered the limit. The ETS marked a new regulatory initiative, related to, but not part of the 1975 proceeding. The U.S.Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled this ETS invalid.

In April of 1984, OSHA published a notice of proposed rulemaking for a standard covering occupational exposure to asbestos in all workplaces it has authority over. The 1983 ETS was proposed as the formal regulation.

In 1986 OSHA issued two revised standards, one governing occupational exposure to asbestos in general industry workplaces, the other applicable to construction workplaces. These revised standards amended OSHA's previous asbestos standard issued in 1972. The 1986 standards explicitly applied to occupational exposure to non-asbestiform tremolite, anthophyllite and actinolite. After a subsequent and separate rulemaking proceeding OSHA deleted these minerals from the scope of the asbestos standards.

The agency issued separate comprehensive asbestos standards for general industry and construction, but the standards shared the same permissible exposure limit and most ancillary requirements. Both standards reduced the 8-hour time weighted average PEL tenfold to 0.2 f/cc from the previous 2 f/cc limit. Specific provisions were added in the construction standard to cover unique hazards relating to asbestos abatement and demolition jobs.

Several major organizations challenged various provisions of the revised standards. A federal court upheld most of the challenged provisions, but OSHA's failure to adopt a short-term exposure limit (STEL) was ordered to be reconsidered within 60 days of the Court's mandate. In partial response, OSHA issued a STEL of 1 f/cc measured over a 30-minute sampling period, in September 1988.

Under pressure from the labor community, the Environmental Protection Agency conducted a series of "Policy Dialogue" meetings in 1989 and 1990 in an attempt to reach agreement on issues concerning asbestos in public and commercial buildings. Participants included real estate developers, banks, insurance companies, unions, asbestos manufacturers, public interest groups, and asbestos consultants and contractors. The group failed to agree on all issues, but did agree that the presence of asbestos should be known to building service workers.

In January 1990, OSHA issued a prohibition against cigarette smoking in areas where occupational exposure to asbestos takes place. The agency also required employers to ensure that employees working in or near regulated areas understand warning signs, and establish training programs to specifically instruct employees as to the content and presence of signs and labels.

Dissatisfied with loose regulations, the labor community urged OSHA to issue a building inspection rule. In November of 1992, OSHA announced it would reconsider its rules, especially to address options to protect building workers from inadvertent exposure to asbestos. This action was partly in response to litigation brought by Service Employees International Union against the EPA. The agency came up with an approach that requires the following:

Workers and construction managers must presume that certain materials in accessible building/facility areas contain asbestos. While working in these areas, workers must treat these unknown materials as if they contained asbestos and use necessary precautions. If it can be shown that the material is not asbestos by chemical analysis or by historical information in the owner's possession about the original construction, work procedures for asbestos do not have to be followed.

In August of 1994 the asbestos standard was updated again to cut permissible exposure in half for nearly 4 million workers.

Related: Industry Cover-up