Occupational exposure limits

Occupational exposure limits (OELs) are regulatory values which indicate levels of exposure that are considered to be safe (health based) for a chemical substance in the air of a workplace.

Such limits are set by regulatory authorities at European Union and national levels, taking into account available information and the most recent data on the hazards of a substance, particularly with respect to carcinogenicity, mutagenicity and toxicity to reproduction, and on the acute effects of exposure.

Setting limits on the exposure of a specific substance helps employers to protect workers’ health from possible risks when using chemicals at work and to limit workers’ exposure to hazardous chemicals.

Taking action on harmful chemicals is a priority area for worker protection in the European Union. The European Commission seeks advice from independent scientific committees on the assessment of priority chemicals in order to support proposed actions to adopt new or revised OELs under the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive, the Chemical Agents Directive and other relevant legislation (for example, Directive 2009/148/EC on asbestos).

ECHA and its Committee for Risk Assessment (RAC) have been supporting the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion (DG EMPL) by providing scientific opinions on OELs since 2019. This work was previously carried out by DG EMPL’s Scientific Committee on Occupational Exposure Limits (SCOEL).

OELs are mainly intended to prevent workers from inhaling chemicals as vapours, mists or dusts. However, RAC may also provide recommendations for a skin notation indicating that dermal protection is needed. Other notations for sensitisation or noise are also possible. Additionally, RAC may recommend biological limit values (BLVs, biomonitoring exposure levels) or biological guidance values (BGVs, biomonitoring background levels). 

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