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OSHA Fact Sheet—Health Effects of Hexavalent Chromium


On February 28, 2006, OSHA published a final rule for a hexavalent chromium permissible exposure limit (PEL) that applies to the metal finishing industry and other sectors. The new limit is 5.0 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) (as Cr VI) with an action level of 2.5 µg/m3 (as Cr VI). It applies to all forms of hexavalent chromium, including chromic acid and chromates, lead chromate, and zinc chromate. The new PEL is significantly lower than the level under which industry has been operating: 52 µg/m3 (as Cr VI).

As part of the new rule, OSHA published other ancillary provisions for employee protection such as preferred methods for controlling exposure, respiratory protection, protective work clothing and equipment, hygiene areas and practices, medical surveillance, hazard communication, and recordkeeping.

Employer obligations to comply with requirements of the final rule are as follows:


Compliance Dates

19 or Fewer Employees

20 or More Employees

All obligations, except engineering controls.

May 30, 2007

November 27, 2006

Engineering controls.

May 31, 2010

May 31, 2010

*Under a settlement agreement with OSHA, companies that "opt-in" by November 27, 2006, would not have to put employees exposed over the PEL in respirators in exchange for accelerated implementation of engineering controls (12/31/08).

What is a PEL?

A permissible exposure limit (PEL) is an occupational exposure limit established by OSHAs regulatory authority. It may be a time-weighted average (TWA) limit or a maximum concentration exposure limit (i.e., ceiling). About 600 of the most common chemicals have PELs; including chromium.

Why did OSHA Lower the Hexavalent Chromium PEL?

OSHA is operated under a court-ordered deadline. Here is a summary of what transpired:

  • In 1993, Public Citizens Health Research Group (HRG) and the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW, now PACE) petitioned OSHA to lower the PEL to 0.5 µg/m3.
  • OSHA denied the petition, but determined that exposures at the permitted levels may result in an excess risk of cancer.
  • OSHA announced that it would publish a rule on hexavalent chromium no later than March 1995, but failed to do so.
  • In 1997, after OSHAs continued inaction on the rulemaking, HRG and OCAW sued to force OSHA to take action. Despite its statement that the existing standard was inadequate to protect worker health, OSHA again failed to complete the rulemaking, citing numerous reasons, including competing agency priorities and uncertainty in the data.
  • The Court dismissed Public Citizens request for action, concluding that the facts did not demonstrate that OSHAs actions had been unreasonable. OSHA was given a new deadline of September 1999, which it again failed to meet.
  • In February 2002, Public Citizen again sued OSHA to force action on the matter.
  • In December 2002, the Court published a scathing opinion critical of OSHAs delay and ordered mediation between the parties to assist the Court in setting a reasonable and workable schedule for the hexavalent chromium rulemaking.
  • On April 2, 2003, with the parties unable to agree on a rulemaking schedule, the Court adopted the mediators recommendation and directed OSHA to publish a proposed hexavalent chromium rule no later than October 4, 2004 and a final standard no later than January 18, 2006. The Court subsequently granted OSHA an extension to February 28, 2006 for publication of the final rule.
Is a Lower PEL Really Necessary?

Most sources agree that the PEL for hexavalent chromium should be lower; however, there is disagreement on how low is necessary.

The major illnesses associated with hexavalent chromium are dermatoses and lung cancer. The current OSHA PEL for these compounds was adopted from a 1943 ANSI Standard. The justification for the ANSI Standard is based on 1924 and 1928 reports on the non-malignant effects (dermatitis and skin ulceration and perforations of the nasal septum) of chromium compounds. The current PEL does not take into account cancer risks of exposure to hexavalent chromium. Evaluations by the California Department of Health Services, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry indicate that the risk of lung cancer to exposed workers is significant.

In 1993, Public Citizens Health Research Group (HRG) and the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW, now PACE) petitioned OSHA to lower the PEL to 0.5 µg/m3. A report published by an industry group contractor suggested, among other alternatives, that OSHA consider a Cr+6 PEL of 44 µg/m3 (time-weighted average).

Additional Information/Other Resources




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