OSHA Targets Isocyanates in NEP Program

One of the most ubiquitous chemicals in the world, isocyanates, used in everything from floor coating to paints and insulation foam, is now under heavy scrutiny from the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and will undergo heavy scrutiny to help protect the health of workers in multiple industries.

Insulation installers, floor contractors, painters, drywallers, and big manufacturers of polyurethane all work with products that contain isocyanates and will be subject the review by the new program.

Isocyanates are responsible for some of the largest man made disasters in history including the Bhopal Disaster where over 500,000 people were exposed to methyl isocyanate gas and other chemicals from Union Carbides pesticide plant.  The disaster eventually is responsible for killing over 20,000 people in India.  Some of the effects of exposure to the chemical include irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, skin rash and even cancer.

Use of Isocyanates are common in polyurethane, one of the most durable materials ever created, which is used in paints, floor coatings, automobiles and foam protection for various structures made of steel, fiberglass, wood and cement.

Ironically enough OSHA announced its National Emphasis Program on June 20, the same day that PPG Industries announced its newly awarded grant from the Department of Defense for $1 million to develop military-grade coatings that do not use isocyanates.

Apparently the DOD may not have done its homework as these coatings already exist in commercial application from Hybrid Coating Technologies Inc. (HCT).  HCT has developed a product called “Green Polyurethane” which is extremely durable and has zero VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) and zero isocyanates.  

Implications for Workers

Allthough many cases of over exposure simply lead to asthma, at times this exposure has led to death.  Initial symptoms show up as difficulty in breathing, tightness in the chest, coughing and wheezing.  Exposure often happens while a worker is applying the chemical in the form of polyurethane as a commercial floor coating or an industrial foam protector.

OSHA will Focus on Coatings and Building Materials

Although the NEP instruction applies to all general industry, construction and maritime workplaces under the jurisdiction of Federal OSHA, after reviewing the 48-page Isocyanate NEP Instruction it appears their focus is across the main users of isocyantes, which are the coatings and building materials industries.   Specifically, OSHA expands on their method for targeting various industries with a focus on evaluating inhalation, dermal and other routes of occupational exposure to isocyanates.

OSHA’s new National Emphasis Program details equipment and controls employers must use to protect workers including:

  • Sample hazard alert letters for employers;
  • Health risks and exposures;
  • Sampling, field extraction and sample shipment procedures;
  • Health surveillance forms for workers;
  • Guidance on personal protective equipment; and
  • Publications and resources.

The painting, automotive, building and construction industries are among those called out in the document as industries where isocyanate exposures are known or likely to occur. Sealants and insulating materials used in mining and insulation used in mechanical engineering are also singled out.

High Risk Groups

According to OSHA, glass and glazing contractors, painting and wall covering contractors, drywall and insulation contractors, flooring contractors, paint and coating manufacturing workers, ship building, industry shop painting, metal coating and manufacturing are all considered occupations where isocyanate exposures:

Among the groups likely to face exposure to hazardous isocyanates are painters, as such OSHA will focus on employers whose workers are in this and other related targeted risk groups.  OSHA’s web page on isocyanates provides additional information on recognizing potential hazards, as well as OSHA standards that address isocyanates in the general, construction and maritime industries.

Isocyanates Cause ‘Debilitating Health Problems’

“Workers exposed to isocyanates can suffer debilitating health problems for months or even years after exposure,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels. “Through this program, OSHA will strengthen protections for workers exposed to isocyanates.”

Could this Forewarn A New Rule Ahead?

Longtime coating industry consultant Alison B. Kaelin, an expert on occupational health and regulatory affairs, predicted Wednesday that the NEP would have “far-reaching potential impact on the industrial painting industry.”

Coatings consultant Alison B. Kaelin said the new program would be felt across the industrial painting industry.

Kaelin also mentioned that the program “references painters and paper hangers (SIC 1721) and coating manufacturers (SIC 3479) among the targeted industries” and added, “We know that many polyurethane and polyurea coatings contain isocyanates.”

The program will be felt in recordkeeping, exposure assessments, hazard communication, housekeeping and flammable and combustible materials, said Kaelin, an award-winning writer and JPCL Top Thinker.As a final note she mentioned, “NEPs sometimes signal potential rulemaking in the future.”  How this ruling will flesh out is undetermined at this point, but current users of isocyanates are highly recommended to find alternative solutions like “Green Polyurethane

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