Update on Cal/OSHA Assessment of Wood Dust

To update the subcommittees on the activity in California on the proposed rule to lower the Permissible Exposure Limit from 5 mg/m3 to 1 mg/m3.  As of last Thursday, the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board voted not to adopt the proposed change. 


Last March, we learned that the California Department of Industrial Relations Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal-OSHA) issued a proposal to lower the Permissible Exposure Limit  (PEL) of wood dust (soft and hard) from 5 mg/m3 to 1 mg/m3.  The 5 mg/m3 standard was implemented as a Federal rule in 1988.  The rule was vacated, however, in 1993.  Nonetheless, industry has continued to support the standard on a voluntarily basis ever since and various states, including California have adopted this value.

If California had moved to lower the standard there was concern that other states will follow suit. The major concerns with a lower standard are as follows:

  1. There are technical reasons not to lower the standard.  Cal-OSHA proposal cites decades old literature in their rationale for lowering the standard, ignoring more recent studies including the Tulane University study, a six-year, $1.9 million study of the respiratory health effects of wood-dust exposure. The Tulane research concluded that there were no adverse effects from wood dust at the exposure levels studied, including the current 5 mg/m3 standard.
  2. Feasibility is even a more important aspect of this proposal.  In their proposed rule change, Cal-OSHA states that 25-30% of manufacturing facilities, mostly small, will not be able to meet the lower standard.  However, our analysis on the relevant data indicated that far greater than this 30% value would not be able to meet the standard.  In addition, although they indicated only a small outlay of funds ($1000-$2000) would be required to meet the new standard, no evidence was provided to back this claim up or to indicate what types of improvements would be required.
  3. California leads the way on environmental and health standards.  History has shown that once California implements stricter guidelines, the door is open for other states to follow suit.

Because industry has such a long history of meeting the 5 mg/m3 standard and regulators had not raised any flags with the current system, industry was caught off guard when the lower standard was proposed.  The American Wood Council (AWC) and several allied trade groups,  immediately identified the potential negative domino effect that the California proposal, if implemented, could have on the rest of the U.S.  The resulting plan was to build a coalition of impacted trade associations to submit comments and to fund legal and research work to push back on the proposed lowering of the standard.  The coalition requested interested trade association to lend their name to official comments and letters as well as contribute funds to the effort.  The coalition provided extensive comments to Cal-OSHA and later met with them in-person in an attempt to work out differences in data interpretation.  Unfortunately, when the Final Statement of Reason was issued none of our comments had been included. 


Last Thursday, the Standards Board held a meeting to further discuss the proposed rule and to vote on whether or not to adopt the lowering of the PEL.  In the public portion of the meeting, AWC provided an extensive presentation on the technical problems with using historical references to support a PEL rather than using more contemporary data such as the Tulane study.   With regard to the occupational health information, the Board does not have scientific experience and relied heavily on both the American Council of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) and their own Health Expert Advisory Committee (HEAC) in confirming that a PEL lower than the existing standard was necessary.  However, with respect to feasibility, Board members were split and in the final vote the Board chair voted against the measure stating that the proposal had not provided sufficient evidence to show feasibility.  This action voting against the measure to lower the PEL means that Cal/OSHA would need to restart the rulemaking. 



In a future memo, we will discuss options on how we would should engage with Cal/OSHA regarding this process going forward.