Are there Hazardous Chemicals in the Office?

by Ervin Cohen & Jessup LLP
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EmpBlog-5.5.2014-Business Man in Gas Mask-iStock-PAID-RESIZEDWe recently posted information concerning OSHA’s new training requirements that are designed to align its Hazard Communication Standard with the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (see post here). Since that time, I have been asked if the requirements apply to office environments. The short answer is that the requirements apply to every employer that has hazardous chemicals in the workplace. OSHA estimates that this includes about 5 million employers in the United States, a figure which undoubtedly includes more than a few offices.

OSHA defines hazardous and toxic substances as those chemicals present in the workplace which are capable of causing harm, including dusts, mixtures, and common materials such as paints, fuels, and solvents. OSHA currently regulates exposure to approximately 400 substances. It isn’t hard to find additional information on specific chemicals: the OSHA Occupational Chemical Database has over 800 entries with information on physical properties, exposure guidelines and emergency response guidance; the OSHA Chemical Sampling Information file contains listings for approximately 1500 substances; the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) Chemical Substances Inventory lists information on more than 62,000 chemicals or chemical substances; the EPA’s new ChemView database provides information on test data and assessments; and some libraries maintain files of material safety data sheets (MSDS) for more than 100,000 substances.

The good news for many office employers is that OSHA does not require that MSDSs be provided to purchasers of household consumer products when the products are used in the workplace in the same manner that a consumer would use them. This means that an employer need not be provide training and the associated paperwork if the duration and frequency of use (and therefore exposure) is not greater than what the typical consumer would experience. On the other hand, employees who are required to work with hazardous chemicals in a manner that results in a duration and frequency of exposure greater than what a normal consumer would experience have a right to know about the properties of those hazardous chemicals.

In practical terms, this means that most office workers will not be covered by the training requirements for the simple reason that most office workers only encounter hazardous chemicals in isolated instances. This will not be true in offices that traffic in hazardous substances, nor will it be true for certain positions that offer greater exposure to hazardous substances due to the nature of the job duties. For example, intermittent or occasional use of a copying machine does not result in coverage under the rule. However, if an employee handles the chemicals to service the machine, or operates it for long periods of time, then the program would have to be applied and that employee would have to be properly trained.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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