Are All Workplace Chemical Exposures Recordable?
Sponsored by Lion Technology, Inc.
Last year, a lawyer wrote to OSHA to request clarification about a specific chemical exposure incident that occurred at a workplace. Three employees were exposed to 15 percent hydrofluoric acid when an acid line ruptured. After the exposure, the employees underwent an off-site medical evaluation. Two of the three employees complained of difficulty breathing and other symptoms. Doctors who evaluated the employees stated that they did not exhibit any symptoms and released the workers back to full duty after administering first aid only.
A Recordable Case?
Is this chemical exposure required to be recorded on OSHA Forms 300 and 301? OSHA provided a response to the letter, but let’s see if we can arrive at an answer by using the regulations as written.
To start, let’s go straight to OSHA’s definition of a recordable case in 29 CFR 1904.4–1904.7. An injury or illness must be recorded if it is a new, work-related case that results in one or more of the following:
• Days away from work
• Restricted work or transfer to another job
• Medical treatment beyond first aid
• Loss of consciousness
• A significant injury or illness diagnosed by a physician or other licensed health care professional
There’s no question from the details above that the chemical exposure in this case was work-related. Obvious too is that this is a new case.
However, this event does not meet the reporting criteria above: nobody lost consciousness or died, nobody missed a day of work, and employees returned to full duty after receiving first aid only. Lastly, the physician who examined the affected employees did not diagnose a significant injury or illness.
Recording “Subjective” Health Issues Like Pain
OSHA considers “subjective” health issues like pain to be abnormal, but notes that these issues do not always require the employer to record an injury or illness case.
As OSHA states in the preamble to its landmark 2001 injury and illness recordkeeping and reporting Final Rule, “Since symptoms do not define cases, OSHA cannot—indeed, should not—require employers to record complaints of uncertain validity and non-specific origin. It is perhaps true that such employees should see a trained physician or other practitioner, but only after this event will there be a case to record, if one exists at all.”
So, if an employee complains of symptoms (shortness of breath, skin irritation, congestion, and so on), is the company always required to record the incident as a workplace injury?
In its response to the lawyer, OSHA says no: “In determining whether a case is recordable, the employer must first decide whether an injury or illness, as defined by the rules, has occurred.”
But don’t be mistaken. A lack of visible or apparent signs or symptoms does not, by itself, exempt the employer from recording the illness. If an employer is unsure whether an injury or illness has occurred, the employer may rely on a healthcare professional’s opinion or diagnosis to determine if the event must be recorded. (See the graphic for a flowchart on recording an injury or illness.)
Finally, while OSHA may not require the employer to record every chemical exposure for 29 CFR 1904 compliance, employers should record these events in some format. Having a record that includes response actions taken to evaluate employees’ health and wellbeing can protect the business from questions and liability in the future.
OSHA: Interpretation Letter (September 2017).
OSHA: Occupational Injury and Illness Recording and Reporting Requirements; Final Rule (January 2001).