Occupational Exposure Limits (OELs) are the maximum concentrations of certain toxic substances that should be allowed in a given workplace. These generally address various hazardous, airborne substances such as asbestos, silica, and other similar materials that can harm human health. If a person is exposed to a quantity of a limited substance that exceeds the limit, they can suffer negative health consequences.
Occupational exposure limits have been in place for many industries for many years. Several government agencies establish them. They often focus on materials associated with known occupational diseases and industrial diseases such as asbestosis or popcorn lung conditions.
OEL regulations often involve ratings for types of materials, levels of exposure, the types of industries in which the substance is used, and various other factors. These can often be quite technical and complex, making them difficult to understand. However, information specific to an industry may be explained in company handouts or through information obtained from state and federal regulatory agencies, such as OSHA.
An example of a substance subject to an OEL is carbon monoxide gas. Carbon monoxide is a gas that is dangerous to people. Carbon monoxide can leak from pipes if a person has gas heating or a gas stove. If a person inhales too much, it causes drowsiness. This can be followed by unconsciousness and then death. It can be used safely, of course, as long as the exposure is limited. Some other chemicals that have exposure limits are benzene, methylene chloride, and crystalline silica.
Some government agencies and private companies refer to an OEL as a “permissible exposure limit” (PEL). For example, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) refers to these limits as PELs instead of OELs. In the U.S., PELs established by OSHA are legal standards that can be enforced. Employers are legally required to keep their employees’ exposure below these limits. If they fail to keep exposure below the legal limits, they may be subject to regulatory enforcement action, including the payment of fines.
Another example is that of carbon monoxide. This is a dangerous gas that comes from gas leaks. If breathed in above a certain level, it causes drowsiness followed by unconsciousness and death. But, used safely under a certain level–such as when cooking with gas–it’s considered safe and won’t cause adverse reactions.
Who Develops Occupational Exposure Limits?
Other major organizations that establish OELs include the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), the American International Health Alliance (AIHA), and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Manufacturers of substances may also develop informal OELs.
Manufacturers also possess expert knowledge of the potential hazards posed by exposure. Finally, trade associations and other nations also develop OELs. These are not legally binding on employers in the U.S., but these OELs may be used for better understanding a substance. They can also be voluntarily used if there is no U.S. OEL or PEL.
How Are Occupational Exposure Limits Enforced?
OSHA is responsible for enforcing federal safety and health requirements in the workplace. OSHA compliance safety and health officers ensure that companies comply with OSHA requirements, help employers and workers reduce on-the-job hazards, and prevent workplace injuries, illnesses, and fatalities.
One OSHA enforcement mechanism is an inspection conducted without advance notice. Employers, however, have the right to require compliance officers to get an inspection warrant before they come to a workplace for an inspection.
Employees can take steps that can lead to enforcement also. Workers have a right to working conditions that do not pose a risk of harm to their health and safety. These can receive information and training about hazards in the workplace. Workers also have a right to learn how to prevent hazards and the OSHA standards that apply to their workplace. Workers have a right to review records of work-related injuries and illnesses.
Workers can file a complaint with OSHA asking OSHA to inspect their workplace if they have reason to believe that they face a hazard there or if their employer is not obeying OSHA’s rules. OSHA has a legal obligation to keep the identities of workers who seek inspections confidential.
Also, workers are legally protected from retaliation if they exercise their rights, including the right to report an injury or to raise health and safety concerns with their employer or with OSHA. If an employer retaliates against a worker for exercising their rights, the worker should file a complaint with OSHA quickly because they have only 30 days to do so.
What If Occupational Exposure Limits Have Been Exceeded?
Occupational exposure limits vary depending on the type of substance involved and the type of industry, which may affect how the substance in question is used. Other factors may be considered, such as the size of an enclosed space, airflow, ventilation, and the like. In addition, there are no OELs for many different substances and workplaces.
Violations of OEL standards can sometimes lead to legal claims, lawsuits, and government investigations. For instance, if a worker begins developing a case of chronic occupational asthma, they may need to have several medical tests run to determine whether there is a link between their medical condition and chemicals at their workplace.
This can lead to an investigation to determine whether the company is complying with state and federal industry-specific standards. For instance, air samples may be taken, and an evaluation of company safety practices and procedures. Consequences may involve claims for damages for injuries and official health and safety investigations. In some cases, a class action toxic exposure lawsuit may be justified.
What If I Need to File a Claim for an Injury?
If a person has been injured by exposure to a toxic substance in their place of employment and has suffered economic losses because of the exposure, they would file a worker’s compensation claim with their state’s worker’s compensation system. They would be able to recover compensation for all of the cost of their necessary medical treatment, their lost wages and the loss of their earning capacity. But the first step would be to file a claim with OSHA, as noted above.
If a person believes that they have been affected by a violation of occupational exposure limits, i.e., by exposure to a hazardous substance at work, they may want to begin taking various steps. Or they may want to consult a lawyer who can take these steps. These can include:
- Documenting their injuries or conditions that develop over time: This may require visits to doctors and accessing medical records and the like;
- Obtaining testimony or statements from co-workers and other people in the workplace who may have been affected;
- Compiling relevant work or employment-related documents, such as pay stubs, correspondence, and the like;
- Speak with an attorney for more guidance and representation during the claims process.
- Maintain a log of questions and facts related to the claim.
Should I Hire a Lawyer for Help with Occupational Exposure Issues?
Occupational exposure can lead to serious medical conditions or injuries. These can cause a person to lose wages and even their earning capacity. The cost of medical treatment can be high.
If you have been injured by exposure to toxic substances in your place of work, you want to consult a qualified workers’ compensation lawyer. OEL standards can often be complex and vary from industry to industry. However, your lawyer can access the experts needed to prove the connection between the substance and your injury. Your lawyer can represent you during investigations, negotiations, and court proceedings.