Conspiracy Theory


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At the end of February, the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) published its new personal exposure limit (PEL) for workers exposed to hexavalent chromium.

The story should be familiar to those who have followed it in the pages of this magazine and elsewhere. Basically, OSHA was forced by a lawsuit to lower the PEL from 52 µg/m3 of air for an eight-hour time-weighted average. Plaintiffs in the suit, including the group Public Citizen, wanted the PEL lowered to 0.25 µg/m3—an unsustainable level that would basically end plating of Cr6+ in this country.

Instead, OSHA in February set the new limit at 5 µg/m3—a level that will merely cripple domestic finishers who perform hex chrome plating and drive a portion of them out of the business.

You might think that an order-of-magnitude reduction, basically placing the U.S. exposure limit among the toughest in the world, would satisfy Public Citizen. But, you’d be wrong. The group is unwilling to compromise, and is prepared not only to go back to court to have the limit set at 0.25 µg/m3, but also to use other weapons at its disposal, including the mainstream media.

Just before publication of the rule, Public Citizen launched a campaign in the mainstream media aimed at discrediting industry efforts to achieve a reasonable Cr6+ PEL. The news of an alleged industry “conspiracy” to withhold and manipulate data on hexavalent chromium was widely covered in the national media.

Public Citizen knew that this “gotcha” story is the type of thing that plays directly into the training and temperament of many mainstream journalists. The majority of reporters and editors have a minimal understanding of anything involving science and technology, but they’re taught that American corporations are driven by greed and avarice, and that manufacturing companies are good mainly for polluting the environment. Given any evidence of the essential evil of corporate America, and especially of manufacturers, most will rise to the bait every time. And what could be more evil than intentionally withholding data indicating that you may be unnecessarily endangering workers?

The campaign by Public Citizen was well-timed to undercut continued political support for a higher PEL and to pave the way for a new PEL lawsuit. The question now confronting the finishing industry is how to respond. Efforts to this point have focused on working to provide the facts to sympathetic legislators on Capitol Hill and enlisting the aid of other business and industry groups.

Most “experts” in media relations will tell you that it’s essential, in these types of situations, to make sure your message is heard. But at this point spokesmen are not inclined to attempt to tell the industry’s side of the story in the mainstream media. Most journalists not only don’t understand the science involved, they don’t want to understand it. It just doesn’t fit with their view of the world.

In this type of environment, spokesmen feel it would be difficult at best to get a fair hearing, and they’re probably right.