OSHA has declared that it lacks the congressional authority to ban the use of hazardous substances. OSHA made this statement in a letter of interpretation, published on the agency’s website, responding to a question specifically related to OSHA’s ability to ban hexavalent chromium in the workplace. OSHA agrees that “product substitution” is the best solution to eliminating the hazards from hexavalent chromium. However, the agency rejects the notion that it can ban its use or the use of any hazardous substance. According to OSHA, the authority to ban the use of hazardous materials has been delegated to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

OSHA’s authority to mandate employers’ adherence to safe practices is provided by the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act). While the OSH Act does not specifically allow OSHA to ban the use of hazardous substances, the agency has always taken a broad view of its regulatory authority. Thus, if banning the use of a hazardous substance were “reasonably necessary and appropriate” to provide a safe work environment, it could be argued that OSHA would have the authority to institute the workplace ban. However, the agency seems to have foreclosed that argument with its latest statement.

OSHA’s position is not simply of theoretical interest. It could be very important in upcoming OSHA regulatory actions. For example, the agency is preparing a proposal to regulate silica exposure comprehensively in the workplace. Many stakeholders have called for OSHA to ban the use of silica in abrasive blasting operations. This latest declaration from the agency would appear to take this possible regulatory approach off the table. It also could be important in OSHA’s diacetyl rulemaking, where product substitution is a significant issue.