Since the inception of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s regulations intended to ensure worker safety, there has remained a steady state of animosity between OSHA and industry, especially over issues concerning the use of hazardous chemicals in manufacturing processes. This animosity has, in large part, grown out of the uncertainty and disagreement about which chemicals should be considered health hazards and, more importantly, at what concentrations of these chemicals can they be deemed “safe.” In the case of many potentially airborne chemicals, permissible exposure limits (PELs) have been established by OSHA with which manufacturers and processors must comply or face the multiple threats of hefty fines, workers’ lawsuits, or even closure of their facilities for the most serious violations.

In response—and, to some degree, out of fear—many users of OSHA-designated hazardous chemicals have adopted measures that not only meet compliance standards but, in some cases, exceed them to the point where the excess might be seen by objective observers as “overkill.” Yet, business owners and operators tend to view these measures as just one more “cost of doing business.” In this paper, the rationale behind the “overkill” approach to regulatory compliance is examined along with its associated costs for, in particular, small businesses in the present and in the future.

While the examples may be specific to a particular industry, the thesis should hold throughout the manufacturing world; that is, after approximately four decades of learning how to co-exist with a regulatory government, it seems that industry should be able to use what it has learned to its own advantage while the regulators, for their part, should strive to aid in the compliance effort through their own knowledge of the problems at hand rather than simply fill the role as the “enemy of industry.” In other words, the regulators should be a source of information, and the adversarial relationship between the regulators and the regulated should be transformed into a kind of symbiosis, a relationship that is mutually beneficial to both parties—as well as to the environment as a whole.

To illustrate, let us consider the case of airborne hexavalent chromium. Shortly after the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1971, OSHA set a PEL for airborne hexavalent chromium of 52 µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter of air) which held until 2006 when, after some resistance to a proposed PEL of 1µg/m3, the limit was reduced to 5µg/m3 (29 CFR §1910.1026). The impetus for the reduction was (1) the increasing evidence that continued exposure to this family of chemicals (chromium trioxide and other hexavalent chromium salts) at concentrations substantially lower than what was, up to that time, considered “allowable” was proving to be a health risk for workers and, of course, (2) lawsuits against OSHA in 1997 and 2002 based on that increasing evidence.

Following the original establishment of the chromium PEL in the 1970s, many chrome platers responded by installing exhaust systems and fume scrubbers designed to remove the chromium mist from above process tanks and to separate and capture the airborne chromium in meshed filters from whence it could be properly disposed or returned to the process. By this method, a sufficient amount of the airborne chromium could be controlled to allow compliance with then-current OSHA regulations as well as with Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, regulations for air emissions as per the Clean Air Act (40 CFR §63.342).

After three decades of relative comfort with the chromium PEL, OSHA’s proposal to lower the limit to 1 µg/m3 came as a rather a shock to many in the industry. How could an industry mainly comprised of small businesses with limited budgets comply with such a drastic change? Since the equipment designed to address the original compliance issue was expensive and thought to be state of the art, what equipment would be needed to meet this new challenge? Furthermore, how could such minute amounts of chromium in the air be reliably measured? From industry’s standpoint, all of these questions could only be answered in the negative. In the end, the argument that compliance could not be achieved by any known method available to the average plating shop was sufficient to result in the less-stringent PEL of 5µg/m3. Nevertheless, industry remained unconvinced. Where were the supporting data that suggested that even this was possible or necessary?

Thus, under the assumption that the systems in place could not possibly provide compliance with the proposed rule, nor even the final standard, the affected industries collectively cried “unfair” upon its implementation and proceeded to bring their own suits against OSHA. The primary complaint was that existing technology could not yet provide a means to meet compliance with the new regulations or, if it could, the cost would be prohibitive for most small businesses. However, some chrome platers, who were either late-comers to the industry or whose equipment had been relatively recently updated, found, upon subsequent air testing, that their systems did, in fact, allow compliance with the stricter regulations in spite of little or no change to their operating equipment and procedures. Surprisingly—at least to some—the newer equipment could, indeed, sufficiently remove airborne chromium to meet the 2006 standard, and the predicted economic disaster for the chrome plating industry consequently failed to materialize.

In the course of OSHA’s attempts to improve the situation for workers and industry’s efforts to reach a “least painful” compromise, both sides have generally failed to take a step back to examine the overall state of the situation and the potential effects that the proposed changes might have on the surroundings. In other words, the effects of these changes on the environment as a whole were, as far as can be seen, never seriously contemplated by either government or industry, a seemingly odd fact when viewed from within the context of a global energy dilemma whose immanency (at least, we are told) becomes clearer with each passing day. Apparently, it had never occurred to anyone to examine and analyze the effects of constant air removal by means of exhaust/fume scrubbing systems on energy usage either from the economic side (use of resources) or from the environmental side (carbon dioxide emissions). Or, if it had, it was immediately assumed that the energy used to maintain levels of air-borne chromium below the specified limits was necessary for regulatory compliance and, therefore, beyond any means of local control.

Had the issue been seriously addressed by either of the affected parties, certainly someone with the appropriate background would have noticed that, since hexavalent chromium salts are not gasses under usual conditions, their presence in the air must be the result of mechanical action. In fact, it has long been known that the most likely mechanical action resulting in the introduction of chromium into the air is the “gassing” that normally occurs during the plating process; i.e. the hydrogen and oxygen bubbles that form around the electrodes and subsequently “pop” as they reach the surface of the solution.  As these bubbles burst, they spew tiny droplets of liquid (in this case, the plating solution) outward to be carried along by air currents before eventually succumbing to gravity. Secondarily, bubbles can form during mechanical or air agitation which, likewise, provides the chromium with a means of escape from the solution. In either case, it is mechanical action and not chemical reaction or physical changes of state that creates air-borne chromium. An idle (un-agitated) chromium solution at ambient or normal operating temperature (that is, at temperatures between the solution’s “freezing point” and boiling point) will retain its chromium content indefinitely, a fact that can be verified by the predictable change (increase) in chromium concentration in the solution that occurs when water (and, therefore, volume) is lost through evaporation.

For the typical chrome plating facility, especially if it is located in an area where the weather can be rather cold during the winter, the most energy consumptive activity by far is the maintenance of process solution temperatures. Since operating ranges tend to be quite narrow (often in a range of less than +/- 3°C), controlling solution temperature involves relative precision. And, since temperature differentials between solutions and the surrounding air can be rather large, the amount of heat necessary to maintain solution temperatures can be substantial. Hence, energy usage (i.e. fuel and/or electricity usage) is certainly of primary concern to platers, and the additional energy requirements of operating exhaust systems and fume scrubbers can be a substantial burden on (especially) small businesses.

Experiments have shown that the cooling behavior of a typical process bath–that is, the rate of heat loss–is in good agreement with the predictions of Newton’s Law of Cooling ; that is, the rate of heat loss is proportional by a factor k to the temperature differential between the process solution and the surrounding air. Therefore, if we know the surrounding air temperature and the initial temperature of the (presumably warmer) solution, we can predict future temperatures of the (unheated) solution with a fair amount of accuracy. In so doing, we can also predict the amount of heat lost to the surrounding air and, therefore, the amount of heat needed to replace what has been lost–which is, in fact, the primary use of heat. In short, we can rather easily determine how much heat is needed to maintain the desired solution temperature, and, once determined, we can calculate the amount of energy (kilowatt-hours, therms, etc.) that is needed to replace the heat lost through normal cooling. Thus, energy costs are, at least, in theory, predictable.

However, Newton’s law of Cooling, in the strict sense, holds under what are assumed to be static conditions; that is, the surrounding air is motionless and heat removal is generally through radiation and conduction. While the air above the solution takes up much of the heat “lost” by the solution, adjusting the calculations to account for changes in air temperature can correct predictions of future temperatures and heat-loss rates. If, however, air is exhausted by fume scrubbers, as described above, convection becomes a major player in the description of the cooling behavior. Heated air from above the baths is forcefully removed by means of mechanical exhaust and replaced with cooler air (as nature abhors a vacuum) which increases the average temperature differential and forces more rapid cooling. (The absolute value of k in the heat-loss calculations becomes effectively greater). What we have, here, is analogous to colder (on the average) surrounding air resulting in, of course, a greater demand for heat (energy) to maintain temperature.

Now, there is no question that the chromium “mist” that occurs during electroplating must be removed from above the solution and, along with it, some of the local air and its “absorbed” heat; hence, the necessity of air exhaust during operation. However, if the process is not in use, the constant exhaust of air and the heat associated with it serves little purpose and can actually be counterproductive. If the cooling rate is substantially increased by the fume scrubbers, which are only necessary during operation, what advantage is there in operating the scrubbers during times when the process remains idle? The heat that is removed by the scrubbers must be replaced, and the greater the heat loss, the more energy is required and the greater the cost. In fact, in colder weather, the increase in rate of heat loss rate with operating fume scrubbers can be as much as 40% or more than with scrubbers off and tanks covered when they are idle.

Why, then, would this practice of redundancy, this irrational waste of energy and resources continue to persist? The answer lies in the fear, that great motivator and deterrent that has been instilled by (1) regulating agencies and their attendant threats and (2) the mythology that is inherent in all industries concerning the irresistible power of those agencies. And, in the case of (1), the threats are often more implied than real as they are as much due to the pre-existing mythology of (2) as to any actions or statements by the regulators themselves. We may, therefore, argue that the use of redundant compliance methods is primarily the result of a lack in technical and scientific knowledge within the industry, as well as within the regulating agencies, of the processes that are being regulated.

The obvious solution, then, is for both parties to attain the requisite knowledge of those processes and to employ that knowledge in an effort to find rational methods of compliance that meet the requirements of the processes while, at the same time, satisfy the regulations. This, of course, requires real cooperation between the parties, to the point where they must become partners in a search for the most reasonable and efficient method of compliance. While it is true that one party (the regulatory agency) “creates” the regulation, in doing so, this party necessarily takes on the responsibility of ensuring that compliance can be achieved in a reasonable manner. Otherwise, the proposed regulation holds neither meaning nor purpose. It follows, then, that it should be the duty of the regulatory agency to fully understand the process it intends to regulate. Further, given the limited resources of small businesses, it is the ethical duty of the agency to share that understanding with those who are affected by the proposed regulation and to help in achieving compliance. However, it also the duty of the regulated entity to investigate to the fullest measure of its ability the issue at hand and to willingly share its own findings with the regulating agency. With each new experience for the regulating agency comes useful knowledge that can be applied in subsequent situations.

But, even more important, both parties must remain cognizant of the potential effects of any regulating action or response on “other” systems; for example, the environment. As noted above, the installation and implementation of fume scrubbers to remove “chrome mist” from chrome plating tanks results in a substantial loss of heat which translates to an increase in the amount of energy used in the process and in the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere as result of the energy production. While those amounts may be negligible for the individual facility, the cumulative energy usage and CO2 emissions of many facilities can begin to become substantial, especially when the CO2 generated by electric utilities that provide the excess power to, say, run the large scrubber fans during unnecessary “off hours,” is factored in. If carbon dioxide emissions continue to be considered the primary cause of global warming, it seems rather likely that every source of those emissions will eventually come under the scrutiny of regulatory agencies.

Therefore, it is prudent from both economic and environmental perspectives for smaller shops to, as they say, “stay ahead of the curve.” By understanding the effects of individual actions on all aspects of business, future shocks brought about by sudden increases in energy costs and environmental regulations can be minimized. But, proactive practices require knowledge; thus, the desire to understand how things – machines and nature – really work is paramount to understanding how a single action can effect changes in many areas. As decisions are made concerning the prudent and proper responses to government regulatory requirements, analysis of the total effects of each proposed responsive action prior is necessary prior to implementation. However, for such analysis to be complete, the combined knowledge bases of industry and government must be available for use.


Bill Corzine is the Director, Corporate Laboratory, for the Armoloy Corporation in Dekalb, Ill. In his capacity in management at Armoloy Corporation, Corzine has had occasion to deal with technical as well as legal issues concerning the handling of hazardous chemicals such as hexavalent chromium. His background includes a BA (chemistry) from Knox College (Galesburg, IL) and graduate work in environmental studies, as well as nearly 20 years experience in the metal finishing industry. He may be reached at (815) 758-7486.