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OSHA Complaints about Air Quality

air monitoring equipment attached to an employee

One of the most dreaded things a facility manager or business owner can receive is a notice from OSHA about a workplace complaint. OSHA complaints can come in many forms, what we will be talking about today are specific complaints related to air quality and worker exposure in the workplace. We commonly deal with two categories of OSHA complaints: particulate and chemical. In this blog, I am more focused on worker exposures to particles and chemicals; I will not cover other workplace issues such as combustible dusts, flammability or explosive limits. It should also be said that this blog should not be used as a replacement for consulting with a qualified industrial hygiene professional. Many complaints can be very complex, and this blog will only skim the surface.

Particle Complaints

Particulate complaints range from explicitly regulated compounds like silica, asbestos, and heavy metals to what OSHA refers to as “particles not otherwise regulated”, or nuisance dust. Particles are measured by collecting either “total” or “respirable” samples depending on the target contaminant. Total samples are exactly that, measuring all of the particles in the air that get collected on a filter disk, whereas a respirable sample typically uses a device called a cyclone, which separates out large particles that are outside of the respirable size range. Respirable particles are of a size which can be inhaled past the upper respiratory tract and deposit into the gas-exchange region of the lungs. Sampling employees for particles generally involves using a personal sampling pump and a sampling cassette attached in the breathing zone of the worker for the duration of the shift to identify a TWA, or time-weighted average, of the exposure.

Chemical Complaints

Chemical complaints are much more vast than most particle complaints. OSHA regulates over 500 different chemicals. For complaints related to a known chemical compound used by a worker, assessments can be straight forward. A chemical may be known because it is manufactured at the facility or perhaps there is an SDS, or safety data sheet, which should be kept on record. SDSs identify many (but not necessarily all) hazardous compounds that are in the product, which an industrial hygienist can use to establish a sampling plan.

Other situations may not be as simple. For example, in industries that are mixing multiple products together or use other methods such as heat or steam to change the product, there may be byproducts which are released into the air that would not appear on an SDS which may need to be accounted for. Even more chemical concerns can be present in some industries, such as carbon dioxide build up in confined spaces or radon exposure in mining or excavation workers. Testing for chemicals is not as straight forward as particles, as each different chemical may have a different method for sampling and laboratory analysis, and even some compounds can be tested with field instrumentation.

What to do if you receive a notice of an OSHA complaint?

First, make sure you read the document carefully and completely. The complaint will include a lot of very important information. You will have a description of the complaint, as well as the applicable OSHA standards which regulate the issues in the complaint, as well as employee notice requirements. For many hazards, a complaint is not enough to trigger a site visit by OSHA, at least not right away. Commonly, they will ask that you perform an internal investigation into the hazards listed on the complaint, and will have a date in which you are to respond to your Duty Officer regarding the findings of your internal investigation.

At this stage, you should perform sampling to determine the exposure of workers to the listed hazards. Perhaps you’ll find that exposures are within all regulations and you can report that to OSHA.  But if issues are discovered, you can begin corrective actions to lower worker exposure to acceptable levels. The worst thing you can do is to not reply by the posted date. Refusing to respond to the notice is all but sure to cause a site visit from OSHA for a site inspection and that is the last thing you want.

If you find yourself facing an OSHA complaint, Indoor Science can help you with determining an appropriate sampling procedure to help you prepare your response.

Ian Cull

Ian Cull is a nationally recognized expert in the field of indoor air quality. He is the Chief Science Officer of Indoor Science, a company he started in 2004. He speaks around the world on air quality topics and is a training provider of the Indoor Air Quality Association. Mr. Cull is a Licensed Professional Engineer (PE) and Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH). His degree is in Environmental Engineering from the University of Illinois - Urbana Champaign. Mr. Cull has developed 50 air quality related courses for the IAQA University and is the author of the book, “Fundamentals of Mold Remediation”. In his words… “Besides being passionate about indoor air quality, I enjoy cycling, music, the Chicago Bulls, and having fun with my three kids.”