September 6, 2022 / Ed Rutkowski

AIHA’s First Workshop on Occupational Risk Assessment

On Aug. 25, AIHA held the first of a planned series of workshops on occupational risk assessment. The workshop included presentations from representatives of EPA, OSHA, and NIOSH who discussed the ways these agencies approach risk assessment for various goals.

The workshop was moderated by Andrew Maier, the principal health scientist at Cardno ChemRisk and director of the committee that oversees the setting of Workplace Environmental Exposure Levels (WEELs). Maier presented a brief introduction that discussed the commonalities of risk assessment approaches. While all risk assessments have the goal of protecting worker health, Maier said, “The key thing is making sure we have tools and approaches that we can apply in a fit-for-purpose manner.” What Maier called the “shared foundation” of most risk assessments is that they all include a problem formulation (that is, the question that the risk assessment is designed to answer), an effort to understand patterns and degrees of exposure, and an evaluation of dose response. He added that “risk communication is a really essential part of this whole process.”

Next, Majd El-Zoobi, a chemical engineer with EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, described risk assessments that the agency undertakes as required by the Toxic Substances Control Act. EPA identifies candidates for possible risk assessment from the approximately 42,000 chemicals in commerce, El-Zoobi said. Chemicals that the agency designates as “high priority” are assigned for risk assessment. The agency is legally required to have 20 risk assessments of high priority chemicals in process at any one time. Part of EPA risk assessments includes evaluation of occupational exposures that potentially affect both workers and nonworkers. If EPA determines that a particular use of a chemical represents an “unreasonable risk,” the agency will attempt to manage the chemical, perhaps through regulation.

Following El-Zoobi’s presentation, Christine Whittaker, director of the Division of Science Integration at NIOSH, discussed the various types of risk assessments undertaken at the agency. NIOSH risk assessments have many purposes, Whittaker said: some support agency recommendations to protect workers from exposure to chemicals, some are undertaken as part of the process for creating Health Hazard Evaluations, some are components of epidemiological studies, and some are intended to assess engineering controls in specific industries. Risk assessments that support NIOSH recommended exposure limits (RELs) are designed to protect workers from occupational exposure even if they are exposed every day for a working lifetime of 45 years, Whittaker explained. The agency also produces risk assessments for its IDLH (immediately dangerous to life or health) values, which are intended to protect workers in emergencies, such as chemical spills, for up to 30 minutes to allow them to escape.

William Perry, former director of the OSHA Directorate of Standards and Guidance, described the risk assessment process at the agency. When developing standards to protect workers, OSHA is required to show that a hazardous substance presents a significant risk to health, that its standard is technologically and economically feasible, and that the standard is cost effective. The goal of OSHA’s risk assessments is to estimate how many workers are exposed within various exposure ranges for each industry sector. These estimates inform the agency’s calculation of the potential reduction in fatalities and illnesses that will result from implementation of its standards.

The event’s final presenter was Fred Boelter, a consultant with Boelter Risk Sciences and Engineering LLC and a past chair of AIHA’s Risk Committee. Boelter observed that laypeople “seem to feel science is failing” to provide 100 percent certainty and zero percent risk for various scenarios but that risk assessment will never be able to provide such certainty. “Ultimately, there must be a willingness to accept and pay for management of the risk that is deemed to be unacceptable,” Boelter said.

More occupational risk assessment events are forthcoming and will be posted to the “free workshops” section of AIHA’s calendar of events.

More Readings in Risk from The Synergist

Transform Your Risk Culture: Simple Steps for Moving Beyond Compliance

Risk in the Healthy Place of Work: Improve Risk Analysis through Structure Decision Making

Characterizing Risk: Messaging, Framing, and Context Matter

Explaining ‘Acceptable’ Risk: AIHA Fellow Seeks to Bolster Understanding of Risk Characterization, Management

Ed Rutkowski

Ed Rutkowski is editor-in-chief of The Synergist.


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