U.S.Department of Labor
Program Highlights
Fact Sheet No. OSHA 92-27

ABSTRACT: Formaldehyde is one of the most common chemicals in use today. As a chemical building block, its use can be traced to consumer goods through a wide spectrum of manufacturing processes. The use of formaldehyde as a preservative in medical laboratories and as an embalming agent in mortuaries is generally known. Formaldehyde is primarily used in the manufacture of urea, phenol, and melamine resins and for a variety of special industrial chemicals. The downstream use of formaldehyde-based inputs is found throughout the U.S. economy. It contributes to the production of about 8 percent of the gross national product (GNP) of the United States.

Occupational Exposure to Formaldehyde


Studies indicate that formaldehyde is a potential human carcinogen. Airborne concentrations above 0.1 ppm (per million parts of air) can cause irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. The severity of irritation increases as concentrations increase; at 100 ppm it is immediately dangerous to life and health. Dermal contact causes various skin reactions including sensitization, which might force persons thus sensitized to find other work.


To protect workers exposed to formaldehyde, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard (29 CFR 1910.1048) applies to formaldehyde gas, its solutions, and a variety of material such as trioxane, paraformaldehyde, and resin formulations, and solids and mixtures containing formaldehyde that serve as sources of the substance. In addition to setting permissible exposure levels, exposure monitoring and training, the standard requires medical surveillance and medical removal, recordkeeping, regulated areas, hazard communication, emergency procedures, primary reliance on engineering and work practices to control exposure, and maintenance and selection of personal protective equipment.


The permissible exposure limit (PEL) for formaldehyde in all workplaces (including general industry, construction, and maritime, but not in agriculture) covered by the OSH Act is 0.75 ppm measured as an 8-hour time weighted average (TWA). The standard includes a 2 ppm short-term exposure limit (STEL) (i.e., maximum exposure allowed during a 15-minute period). The "action level" is 0.5 ppm measured over 8 hours.


The standard requires that the employer conduct initial monitoring to identify all employees who are exposed to formaldehyde at or above the action level or STEL and to accurately determine the exposure of each employee so identified.

If the exposure level is maintained below the STEL and the action level, employers may discontinue exposure monitoring, until such time as there is a change which could affect exposure levels. The employer must also monitor employee exposure promptly, upon receiving reports of formaldehyde-related signs and symptoms.


Medical removal protection provisions are included for employees suffering significant adverse effects from formaldehyde exposure. This provision requires that such employees be removed to jobs with less exposure until their condition improves, or until a physician determines that they will not ever be able to return to any workplace formaldehyde exposure, or for a period of six months, whichever occurs first.


The employer must institute engineering and work practice controls to reduce and maintain employee exposure to formaldehyde at or below the TWA and the STEL. Whenever the employer has established that feasible engineering and work practice controls cannot reduce employee exposure to or below the PEL, the employer must apply these controls to reduce employee exposure to the extent feasible and must supplement them with respirators that satisfy this standard.


Specific hazard labeling requirements are needed for all forms of formaldehyde, including mixtures and solutions, composed of 0.1 percent or greater formaldehyde, and for materials capable of releasing formaldehyde in excess of 0.1 ppm. Hazard labeling, including a warning that formaldehyde presents a potential cancer hazard, is required where formaldehyde levels, under reasonably foreseeable conditions of use, may potentially exceed 0.5 ppm.


Training is required at least annually for all employees exposed to formaldehyde concentrations of 0.1 ppm or greater. The training will increase employees' awareness of specific hazards in their workplace and of the control measures employed. The training also will assist successful medical surveillance and medical removal programs. These provisions will only be effective if employees know what signs or symptoms are related to the health effects of formaldehyde, if they know how to properly report them to the employer, and if they are periodically encouraged to do so.


OSHA estimates that the total number of firms using formaldehyde is 112,066; employees exposed total 2,156,801. The estimated number of workers grouped according to worker exposure levels is:


Respiratory protection required to meet the PEL of 0.75 ppm must be provided as soon as possible but no later that September 24, 1992; engineering and work practice controls shall be implemented as soon as possible but no later than June 6, 1993, and medical removal protection by December 28, 1992.

The labeling provisions must be implemented by December 28, 1992. Labeling of containers of formaldehyde products must continue to comply with the provisions of OSHA's hazard communication standard (29 CFR 1910.1200) until that time.

Periodic training for all employees exposed to formaldehyde between 0.1 ppm and 0.5 ppm must begin by August 25, 1992.


OSHA has estimated that compliance with the reduction of the PEL from 1 ppm (as an 8-hour TWA) to .75 ppm in the standard will result in the avoidance of up to three additional cases of formaldehyde-induced cancer annually. In addition, OSHA estimates that of the 2.1 million workers exposed to formaldehyde, one percent, or 21,568, may be removed annually from respiratory distress as a result of the provisions for medical removal.

This is one of a series of fact sheets highlighting U.S.Department of Labor programs. It is intended as a general description only and does not carry the force of legal opinion. This information will be made available to sensory impaired individuals upon request. Voice phone: (202)219-8151. TDD message referral phone: 1-800-326-2577.

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