A top federal regulator has accepted a voluntary industry plan to limit workplace exposure to the monomer styrene to 50 parts per million. In turn, in July 1997, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will begin enforcement at that level for an eight-hour, time-weighted average. Five styrene industry groups have about 16 months to make training and education available to those coming in contact with the monomer while using unsaturated polyester resins.
``We went to OSHA, prior to rule making, with data on styrene and styrene emissions,'' said Stephen McNally, director of government affairs for the Composites Fabri-cators Association, based in Arlington, Va.
``This plan will have a tremendous [positive] impact on industry.''
Joseph A. Dear, assistant secretary for occupational safety and health, met with industry groups.
``We believe your plan will create benefits for employee health, and we support its implementation,'' Dear said in a Feb. 14 letter to John B. Jenks, steering committee chairman of the Styrene Information and Research Center and vice president of Owens Corning in Toledo, Ohio. SIRC is an operation of the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
``This is a very significant and positive step for industry,'' Jenks said. ``It allows us to avoid a tremendously time-consuming and costly rule-making procedure.''
Training is the next hurdle.
``As an industry, we have committed to voluntarily regulate ourselves against a 50-ppm standard,'' Jenks said.
``We will tell everyone we can that they should be at 50 ppm,'' said John Schweitzer, Ann Arbor, Mich.-based technical director for SPI's Composites Institute. ``Some are there already.''
Currently, OSHA does not regulate styrene as a carcinogen. Under this solution, styrene would continue to be regulated on the basis of its narcotic effects.
Between 1988-1989, industry spent more than $1 million to obtain a 50-ppm permissible exposure level for styrene in the OSHA rule making, according to McNally.
In 1992, the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals invalidated the rule, and styrene's standard reverted back to a 1971 limit of 100 ppm.
In early 1995, OSHA began evaluating priority rule making issues.
In January, the agency identified an initial list of 20 chemicals and agents to be subjected to rule making on the basis of workplace impact. OSHA seeks to establish lower permissible exposure levels through a process that would withstand any court challenge.
The list omitted styrene.
``The last thing we wanted was a long and protracted assessment,'' McNally said. ``We demonstrated we were reducing the risk and the at-risk population.''
Typically, CFA members use an open-mold process that exposes them to higher levels of styrene emission.
By being ahead of the rule making, the styrene industry saved a major headache that ``could have taken us years of time and millions of dollars,'' McNally said.
``Fundamentally, other [industry] people might have tried this option,'' he said.
Now, CFA, SIRC, the Composites Institute, the International Cast Polymer Association in Arlington, Va., and the National Marine Manufacturers Association in Chicago face the daunting challenge of making the facts known to thousands of end users.