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California’s Revised Lead Standard Sets a New National Bar

After years of proposals and revisions, California OSHA (Cal/OSHA) has issued an update to its decades-old standard on hazardous lead exposure. The new standard will be the strongest in the country and could become a model for other state OSHA programs or even a revised federal OSHA standard.

LHSFNA Management
David F. Rampone

For years now, the science has been clear – there is no safe level of lead exposure. And while plenty of progress has been made to protect children and consumers from lead exposure, workers haven’t been provided the same level of protection.

“Lead exposure has serious and long-lasting effects on the brain, heart, kidneys and other systems in the body,” said David F. Rampone, LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman. “It’s past time that LIUNA members and other construction workers were better protected from this hazard through a lower exposure limit, proven control measures and mandatory monitoring programs.”

Key Requirements and Changes in the New Rule

Until now, California’s lead exposure rules were the same as federal OSHA’s. Here’s what will change when the new rule goes into effect in January of 2025:

  • Lower the permissible exposure limit (PEL) from 50 μg/m3 to 10 μg/m3. This is the maximum amount of airborne lead dust that workers can be exposed to weighted over an eight-hour day.
  • Lower the action level (AL) from 30 μg/m3 to 2 μg/m3. This is the level of airborne lead that will trigger employers to start following the provisions of the standard.
  • Lower the blood lead level (BLL) limit from 40 µg/dL to 10 µg/dL. Workers temporarily removed from the job due to high lead exposure can’t return to work until their BLL falls below this level.

For more information on the differences between PELs, ALs, and BLLs as they relate to lead exposure, see our article Workers Deserve the Same Lead Protections as All of Us.

Once the action level has been reached, the updated rule requires employers to use engineering controls and other work practices to reduce airborne exposure. If exposure is still too high, workers will need respiratory protection.

“With over 76,000 LIUNA members in California, LIUNA is building this great state from the ground up,” said Ernie Ordonez, LIUNA Vice President and Pacific Southwest Regional Manager. “This rule will help protect our members as they perform work on bridges, demolition projects, tunnel projects and everything in between.”

LIUNA and LHSFNA Advocacy for the New California Lead Rule

California’s Safety and Health Standards Board ultimately voted 5-2 in favor of the new standard. One of those yes votes came from David Thomas, who serves as Chairman of California’s Safety and Health Standards Board, and is also a President at the Northern California District Council of Laborers.

However, the final hearing that Thomas and other Board members held before the vote wasn’t without controversy. In testimony spanning nearly five hours, the Board heard from several employer groups and representatives who opposed the standard. Meanwhile, labor groups, occupational health professionals and public health experts gave testimony about the clear risks of lead exposure and the dire need for stronger protections.

Among those who testified in favor of the standard was Brian Parra, President of LIUNA Local 67 in Oakland, California. Local 67 specializes in asbestos, lead and mold remediation work and is extremely familiar with the engineering controls and training necessary to do this work safely. Amber Novey, who serves as the TriFund Field Coordinator for LIUNA’s Pacific Southwest Region, also spoke about why this updated rule was essential.

“Until now, California’s workers have been left out of the picture when it comes to protecting people from hazardous lead exposure,” Novey said after the successful vote. “Lead isn’t only an on-the-job problem, it’s a take-home hazard too. Reducing lead on jobsites also helps keep workers from tracking it home to their loved ones.”

The LHSFNA’s OSH Division has been a vocal supporter of stronger lead standards at both the federal and state level. The Fund served as a resource for the Pacific Southwest Region throughout the rulemaking process and will also be a resource for LIUNA signatory contractors in California that need assistance complying with the new rule.

“Our hope is that this revised standard sparks change across the U.S. and at the federal level,” said Travis Parsons, the LHSFNA’s Director of Occupational Safety & Health. “This is the new blueprint for how to take an outdated lead standard and revise it to protect workers in today’s construction industry. There is no reason for any worker to be overexposed to lead in 2024.”

For more information, visit our Chemical & Health Hazards page. LIUNA signatory contractors and LIUNA affiliates can also order the Fund’s Lead in Construction toolbox talk and Lead Poisoning Health Alert.

[Nick Fox]

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