The development of chemical exposure limits for the workplace

  • Mark Piney

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The thesis examines and explains the development of occupational exposure limits (OELs) as a means of preventing work related disease and ill health. The research focuses on the USA and UK and sets the work within a certain historical and social context. A subsidiary aim of the thesis is to identify any short comings in OELs and the methods by which they are set and suggest alternatives. The research framework uses Thomas Kuhn's idea of science progressing by means of paradigms which he describes at one point, `lq ... universally recognised scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners. KUHN (1970). Once learned individuals in the community, `lq ... are committed to the same rules and standards for scientific practice. Ibid. Kuhn's ideas are adapted by combining them with a view of industrial hygiene as an applied science-based profession having many of the qualities of non-scientific professions. The great advantage of this approach to OELs is that it keeps the analysis grounded in the behaviour and priorities of the groups which have forged, propounded, used, benefited from, and defended, them. The development and use of OELs on a larger scale is shown to be connected to the growth of a new profession in the USA; industrial hygiene, with the assistance of another new profession; industrial toxicology. The origins of these professions, particularly industrial hygiene, are traced. By examining the growth of the professions and the writings of key individuals it is possible to show how technical, economic and social factors became embedded in the OEL paradigm which industrial hygienists and toxicologists forged. The origin, mission and needs of these professions and their clients made such influences almost inevitable. The use of the OEL paradigm in practice is examined by an analysis of the process of the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, Threshold Limit Value (ACGIH, TLV) Committee via the Minutes from 1962-1984. A similar approach is taken with the development of OELs in the UK. Although the form and definition of TLVs has encouraged the belief that they are health-based OELs the conclusion is that they, and most other OELs, are, and always have been, reasonably practicable limits: the degree of risk posed by a substance is weighed against the feasibility and cost of controlling exposure to that substance. The confusion over the status of TLVs and other OELs is seen to be a confusion at the heart of the OEL paradigm and the historical perspective explains why this should be. The paradigm has prevented the creation of truly health-based and, conversely, truly reasonably practicable OELs. In the final part of the thesis the analysis of the development of OELs is set in a contemporary context and a proposal for a two-stage, two-committee procedure for producing sets of OELs is put forward. This approach is set within an alternative OEL paradigm. The advantages, benefits and likely obstacles to these proposals are discussed.
Date of Award1989
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorAndrew R. Hale (Supervisor), Richard Booth (Supervisor) & Fred Steward (Supervisor)


  • development
  • chemical exposure limits
  • workplace
  • occupational health
  • threshold limit value
  • industrial hygiene

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