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The Painful Truth About Hexavalent Chromium Permissible Exposure Limits

Greg Valero

A proposed government regulation designed to protect workers from exposure to hexavalent chromium carries a potentially dangerous side effect. Chrome plating employers contend the ruling would bankrupt half the industry and force other companies to relocate to countries where environmental laws are less strict.

"The competitive position of U.S. manufacturers is already under attack from foreign competitors who substantially undercut prices, and has been for some time," observed Art Brooks, vice president of sales, KCH Engineered Systems (Forest City, N.C.), a provider of engineering and manufacturing metal finishing systems, tanks, programmed and manual hoists, ventilation systems, scrubbers, mist eliminators, ductwork and hoods.

"If the permissible exposure limit [PEL] is set at an unreasonably low level, this will obviously ensure that many more manufacturing jobs will be lost overseas."

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is proposing three separate standards covering occupational exposure to hexavalent chromium. The ruling would lower OSHA’s PEL for hexavalent chromium and all hexavalent chromium compounds in construction, shipyards, and general industry from 52 to one microgram of hexavalent chromium per cubic meter of air as an eight-hour time weighted average. The bar is set even lower for the "action level"; when the PEL exceeds 0.5 micrograms per cubic meter, it triggers engineering controls to minimize exposure to employees.

Hexavalent chromium compounds are widely used in the chemical industry in pigments, metal plating, and chemical synthesis as ingredients and catalysts. The major health effects associated with hexavalent chromium exposure are far reaching, from lung cancer and asthma to nasal septum ulcerations and perforations, OSHA said. "The risks involved in the occupational use of hexavalent chromium can be serious and potentially life threatening," noted OSHA Administrator John Henshaw.

Metal finishing industry members criticized the standard for being too stringent, costly and unrealistic. "The cost figures are scary as hell," said Jim Hudgins, chairman of finishing shop C.R. Hudgins Plating (Lynchburg, Va.). "I don’t know how much it would cost to comply. But I know it would not be $14,000 a year that OSHA has come up with."

Compliance Issues

OSHA estimates the industry will pay approximately $54 million annually for incremental requirements in the proposed rule, such as for controlling exposure and providing workers with respiratory protection, protective work clothing, and equipment. This translates into roughly $14,000 per year for the typical chrome plating firm. "This proposed rule is both economically and technologically feasible, and will substantially reduce the risk to workers potentially exposed to hexavalent chromium," Henshaw said.

But industry estimates paint an entirely different picture. The Policy Group (Washington), a lobbying and advocacy organization that coordinates government relations work for the metal finishing industry, said it believes OSHA is low balling the compliance cost estimates. The firm estimates the average finishing job shop or small captive operation would have to spend approximately $300,000 a year in capital and operating costs just to maintain a chrome PEL range of 5 to 10 micrograms per cubic meter. "And many wouldn't have the physical space to address even some of the proposed requirements," said Christian Richter, president.

Beyond improperly costing for such items, The Policy Group contends OSHA has not considered other incremental costs associated with the new rule, such as increased energy, health insurance premiums, and worker's compensation expenses; treatment of shower water; loss of productivity; attorneys’ fees; potential air permit and modifications; and toxic tort liability.

"It's going to take a lot of dollars to reduce chrome emissions or exposure," concurred Jim Jones, vice president, Dixie Industrial Finishing (Tucker, Ga.), a metal finishing shop. "Consequently, you’re going to have higher operating costs."

If the lower chromium PEL is approved by OSHA in its current form, observers say it would mark the second major legislative reform in the industry the past 10 years. A number of "mom and pop" chromium plating shops reportedly closed their doors in the 1990s because they could not afford to comply with new regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (Washington) to abate emissions formed by electroplating. "It's a win-lose situation," said Paul Fisher, president, Carolina Process Control (Rutherfordton, N.C.), a chemicals and equipment distributor serving the electroplating, metal finishing and chemical industries. "You might win more business in the short term but the industry loses in the long term."

OSHA accepted public comments on the proposed standards through Jan. 3. The agency scheduled an informal public hearing in Washington on Feb. 3. "The ball is in their court to show where the agency made bad guesses in our analysis," said Amanda Eden, director of OSHA’s Office for Chemical Hazards for Metals.

The agency is charged with, among other things, assuring the safety and health of workers by setting and enforcing standards.

The Policy Group has organized a task force to formulate a credible message that the PEL should be set at a reasonable and justifiable level. "Model" comments from finishing firms were submitted to OSHA and about 50 industry witnesses are expected to address the agency at the hearing. But how much influence will the industry have in determining a new chromium PEL standard?

"It depends on the quality of the data," Eden said. "If they come in with a fairly substantial analysis, or some good figures that allow us to see what’s really going on out there, it can carry a great deal of weight."

Technical Feasibility

A major point of contention raised by industry members is whether the proposed chromium PEL is attainable. The regulatory net could cover a wide range of finishing processes, such as hard and decorative chromium plating, chromic acid anodizing, chromate conversion coatings, plating on plastics, passivation,
welding and fabricating, polishing and grinding, chemical mixing and blending.

"If a chrome plater is doing high volume and not using any exhaust system or scrubbers, then it will require a certain level of investment to comply," Dixie Industrial Finishing's Jones pointed out. "If a decorative chrome plater has one chrome tank and is doing piecework, he'll be at a different level of investment."

Experts say they believe a chrome PEL level of around 23 is technically and economically feasible. Capital investments would vary depending on several factors, such as the finishing process and type of engineered fume control system deployed. "OSHA must raise the PEL being proposed to a higher level that will enable our engineered control systems to maintain compliance on a consistent basis and protect the workplace," KCH's Brooks said.

The rule is expected to prompt equipment providers to develop new exhaust, ventilation and fume control systems for chrome tanks and processes to meet a lower PEL. While there are technologies and engineered systems to significantly reduce chromium exposure, experts say, few, if any, technologies exist to meet the proposed chrome action level on a consistent basis. "We have to have new technology to meet whatever the halfway point of this new OSHA chrome PEL is," Carolina Process Control’s Fisher said. "If we can have something that people can afford to put into action, then we'll lose less shops."

Job and captive shops that operate modern exhaust systems stand a much better chance of achieving a significantly lower PEL, observers say. "This means that the chrome plater with a properly and conservatively designed exhaust/scrubber system capacity may be able to upgrade their fume control by changing existing exhaust hoods to an engineered hood and covered tank system, without bearing the expense of purchasing an entirely new chrome scrubber and fan," Brooks said.

A second alternative for chromium platers is to utilize alternative materials in place of chromium. These include, among others, trivalent chromium, nickel-boron plating chemistries, and boron-based plating. "But they are not the answer for this industry," said Jeff Hannapel, The Policy Group’s vice president of regulatory affairs. "The reason why you use hexavalent chromium is because it does everything better than other materials."

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