Value of Corporate Internal Occupational Exposure Limits (OELs)

Authors: Mary E. Greenhalgh, MPH, CIH and Peter B. Harnett, MS, MPH, CIH, CSP of COEH

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recognizes that many of its Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) are outdated; the majority have not been revised since first adopted shortly after the OSHAct of 1970, and are based on research from the 1950s and 1960s.  New scientific information and workplace experience have not been incorporated, resulting in PELs inadequate to protect worker health. In 1989, efforts to revise existing PELs and adopt PELs for additional chemicals in a single rulemaking were challenged by industry and labor groups, and the PEL update was ultimately vacated by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 1992. The Court found that OSHA had not adequately demonstrated that each PEL would eliminate significant risk while being economically feasible for each affected industry.

The unfavorable PEL culture since the 1992 decision has made it extremely difficult for OSHA to develop initial PELs for many hazardous chemicals commonly handled by US workers. Since 1992, OSHA has successfully revised a small number of PELs using traditional rulemaking processes – for example, methylene chloride (January 1997), and silica (March 2016).  However, the majority of PELs remain outdated and inadequate to protect worker health and most chemicals do not have a PEL.  In the meantime, other technical, professional and government organizations have published new or updated exposure limits.  Some forward-thinking companies supplement this by developing their own internal occupational exposure limits (OELs) based on current science, for chemicals without formal PELs.  Developing and implementing these internal OELs protect not only the company’s own employees from exposure, but when supplied to and used by their customers, reduces the company’s potential liability in future litigation brought by customers or their employees.  Companies practicing prudent product stewardship including developing and providing OELs based on current science protect themselves, their shareholders and their downstream customers.


COEH works with chemical and pharmaceutical companies developing and revising internal occupational exposure limits. Please contact 908 310-2127 or if you would like to know more about COEH’s capabilities.

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