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OSHA targets exposure to stainless steel hazards

By Justin Carinci
Dolan Media Newswires

Portland, Ore. — Working with stainless steel can pose a greater threat to workers than other metals. A new rule aims to give workers more information about exposure to hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen released when stainless steel is welded, cut with a plasma torch or cast.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration changed its notification requirements in March. Previously, employers didn’t have to share test results unless they showed that employees had been overexposed to hexavalent chromium.

Under the new rules, employers need to share that information no matter what levels of the carcinogen were found. The OSHA rules give construction employers five workdays to provide the required notice.

Oregon OSHA, required by law to have standards at least as effective as federal standards, is set to adopt the changes in June.

The more information that workers get about their health, the better, said Robert Brown, safety director with The Lynch Co., a Portland fabrication shop.

“We tend to be more of an over-compliance company in those areas,” Brown said. Company officials post test results on the employee safety board, whatever the results.

Lynch, founded in 1919, works with metals including high-polish architectural stainless steel and heavy structural stainless steel for high-rise buildings. Employers working around hexavalent chromium wear air samplers that are inspected by a third party.

If levels are high, the company makes adjustments to ensure better ventilation and less worker exposure.

Companies that don’t work extensively with stainless steel may not take special precautions, but they may not need to, said Melanie Mesaros, spokeswoman for Oregon OSHA.

Normal welding eye protection and gloves may suffice. Greater concentrations for longer periods may require that workers wear respirators.

Awareness of hexavalent chromium is increasing in light of the federal rule change, Mesaros said. “We’ve been getting more complaints about it and doing more inspections than we’ve done before,” she said.

Albina Pipe Bending in Tualatin doesn’t weld stainless steel often, said Brian Smith, the firm’s general manager. As a result, he said, it was unclear how much precaution employees needed to take.

The company requested an Oregon OSHA inspection, Smith said. “We had them come out and test and see what kind of readings we had.”

Even though the tests showed low levels, the company still takes precautions — such as welding hoods with respirators — when it works with stainless steel.

Because health effects of hexavalent chromium, including respiratory illness and cancer, can take a long time to develop, it’s important to stay on top of exposure levels, Mesaros said.

That’s different from many work-site hazards, she said. “When you have a fall protection issue, you know the effect right away.

“But there’s a lag time with this kind of health issue,” she said. “It could take months before a person starts getting sick.”

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