Home > Toxic Hazards >

New Lead Safety Levels for Workers?

Posted on Feb 6, 2012
Tweet This! Email This! Share This on Facebook Bookmark and Share

Lead HazardIt still is in our workplaces, homes and consumer products. And people still ask: how low should we go?

That’s what Cal/OSHA is trying to decide about lead, given that the existing standards are based on science that has not been updated in over 30 years. Recent studies (PDF) provide strong evidence that the metal harms people at the current legal exposure levels. The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) recommends lowering how much lead can be in workplace air, and workers’ blood and bones. They also want workers removed from lead-contaminated work areas based on the level of lead in their blood, not how much is in the air. Looking at blood lead levels provides a better picture of how people are being affected.

This means workers who might breathe or otherwise get lead in their body (e.g., by eating or smoking in an area where there is lead dust) would have regular tests for lead in their blood. The current law for construction workers (PDF) and others says this medical surveillance is required only when the lead in air measurements are above 30 micrograms for every cubic meter of air. That means someone must first test the air.

CDPH says this ignores ingestion and the way that levels of lead in air can change. Blood tests are a better way to know if someone has too much lead in their body, and their workplace. Besides, they say, many employers do not actually measure the amount of lead in the air, and so many workers do not get tested to know the amount of lead in their blood. They know this from experience running the Occupational Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (OLPPP).

Why worry?

The metal harms the people who work with it and their families. It affects the ability of men to have children, or healthy children. It affects the fetus, leading to miscarriages, lower birth weights, developmental and behavioral problems, and learning disabilities. It causes high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes. It affects how well the kidneys work. It makes the brain less effective, and is linked to depression, impaired thinking, and reasoning difficulties.

Lead has been a known hazard for more than a thousand years. Its use is banned in some things (e.g., gasoline, house paints, food can solder).

Yet workers still deal with it in about 100 types of work. This is especially true in the manufacture, recycling, and repair of batteries and radiators, in some construction work, and in some foundries and smelters. In the U.S. and elsewhere, lead is also often found in electronic waste (e-waste).

The last lead standard was passed in the 1970s. Federal OSHA’s permissible exposure limit (PEL), and its cutoffs for medical removal and blood tests, were up-to-date then. Now, there’s a lot more evidence that lead causes serious health effects at much lower levels. We also know that if workers take lead home accidentally (e.g., on clothes or in their vehicles), their children can be affected at much lower levels than indicated by the 1970s studies.

If you want to know more about why the CDPH is recommending changes, you can download documents about the proposals, as well as a general report on the issue (PDF). You can also read about the department’s experiences investigating lead poisoning and blood test results.

If you’re worried that lead may be affecting you, check out these materials for workers in English (PDF) and Spanish (PDF). There are also materials for employers (PDF report and alert) and doctors (PDF research paper and medical guidelines booklet).

If you want to keep up with what happens with the Cal/OSHA standard for lead, contact Bob Nakamura or Steve Smith of the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) to put you on an e-mail list. They will tell you about Cal/OSHA meetings to discuss making the standard more protective. You can attend to tell your story, or those of your family members or co-workers, and to ask questions. And you can always ask Worksafe what we’re doing to push for California standards that really protect workers from lead on the job.

Support Worksafe, Donate Now