In 1989, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) tried to update its rules on chemical exposure in the workplace. OSHA regulates toxins by listing chemicals and establishing a maximum amount of exposure for each chemical. The maximum amount of exposure is called the permissible exposure limit (PEL). The original permissible exposure limits (PELs) had been set by OSHA back in 1971, and it was time to add new chemicals and to make changes to existing permitted levels in order to prevent employees from being exposed to dangerous toxins in the workplace.
Unfortunately, in 1992, in a case called AFL-CIO v. OHSA, OSHA's updates to its PELs were shot down. The court held OSHA couldn't just add many chemicals to its list and make updates all at once. Instead, the agency should have done an individual assessment of each chemical in order to determine a permissible limit.
The 1989 changes were no longer enforceable after this ruling, and around half of the chemicals which OSHA had tried to set PELs for were no longer regulated. Further, the remaining limits reverted back to their 1971 levels. Since the case, OSHA has made some rules addressing particular toxins, but has not been able to create effective regulations to keep employees safe from many of the dangerous chemicals which they are exposed to in the workplace.
The Risks of Toxic Exposure at Worksites
OSHA has been able to pass some new rules regulating individuals substances, such as new rules on Silica. For the most part, there aren't clear-cut guidelines to determine exactly how much of a dangerous substance an employee can be exposed to while the worker is doing his job. OSHA has set up websites and tried to provide information for employers who want to voluntarily take steps to ensure workers are being kept safe and not exposed to chemicals which present a serious danger to their health. Unfortunately, not every employer cares to take the steps necessary to protect their workers.
Toxic exposure can happen to any worker in any worksite. Those who are most at risk include people who work in landscaping and who are exposed to pesticides; miners who may be exposed to dust and dangerous substances in the air; industrial workers exposed to chemicals; cleaners exposed to powerful substances; and construction workers who may encounter materials like mold, lead, and asbestos when they work in older buildings. However, anyone and everyone could possibly be exposed, including people who work in environments which aren't considered traditionally dangerous such as teachers or office workers who are exposed to cleaning chemicals or to asbestos in old buildings where they do their jobs.
When an employee is sickened due to toxic exposure at a worksite, the victim or his family can pursue a workers' compensation claim. Getting benefits can present challenges because often an illness does not develop until a long time after the exposure occurs, so it can be hard to demonstrate the health issues are work-related.