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It’s Time for Federal OSHA to Act on Outdated Lead Standard

As part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Biden administration’s Lead Pipe and Paint Action Plan allocates $15 billion to replace all lead pipes and service lines in the U.S. over the next ten years.

LIUNA General President
Terry O’Sullivan

“This initiative will bring cleaner drinking water to millions of families across the country and is especially important for young children, who are very sensitive to lead exposure,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “LIUNA’s working men and women – many of them parents themselves – are proud to be part of projects that improve the safety and health of communities where they work and live.”

More and more research shows there’s no safe level of lead exposure, especially for children. That’s why the CDC recently lowered its blood lead reference value (BLRV) for children from 5 µg/dL to 3.5 µg/dL. BLRV is the metric used to identify children with high levels of lead in their blood. Children with blood lead levels (BLLs) at or above the BLRV are in the top 2.5 percent for lead exposure.

“Lead exposure at all levels is harmful to children and can be detrimental to their long-term health,” said CDC Acting Principal Deputy Director Debra Houry, M.D., M.P.H. Both children and adults are vulnerable to lead’s health effects. Lead exposure damages the brain as well as other soft tissues and organs. Exposure to high levels of lead can cause memory loss, anemia, muscle weakness and kidney and brain damage.

Current Federal OSHA Standard Is Failing Workers

If a blood lead level of 3.5 µg/dL is seen as extremely high for young children, what level does OSHA say is too high for working adults? Thanks to a standard set in 1978 that’s never been updated, that number sits at 50 µg/dL. Currently, construction employers don’t have to take any protective measures until the airborne lead level exceeds 30 µg/m3. Workers don’t have to be removed from the job until their BLL reaches 50 µg/dL; they can return to work once it’s below 40 µg/dL.

Since 2015, NIOSH – the agency that covers workplace issues as part of the CDC – has considered workers’ BLL to be elevated once it reaches five µg/dL. In a 2017 position statement, the American Public Health (APHA) noted that chronic BLLs between 10-25 µg/dL in adults show a clear relationship with increased risk for negative health effects. “Since lead is one of the most extensively studied occupational exposures and the evidence linking low-level lead exposures to adverse health effects is strong, it is unethical to continue to expose workers and their families to a known hazard,” wrote the APHA.

Little Progress at Federal OSHA and State OSHA Programs

It’s widely accepted that OSHA’s lead standard doesn’t adequately protect workers’ health. So where does federal OSHA stand on changing that? In March, the agency took a small step toward updating the standard by asking for public comment, but didn’t give further details about what a revised standard might include or a timeline. With the hazards of lead being so well-known, there’s no mystery about what a more protective standard would look like. In fact, several state OSHA programs have either released or already proposed more stringent lead standards.

In 2018, Michigan became the first state to release its own lead standard. It requires workers to be removed from the job when their BLL reaches 30 µg/dL and doesn’t allow a return to work until BLL drops below 15 µg/dL.

In California, a 2019 law requires the California Department of Public Health to notify Cal/OSHA when workers test at 20 µg/dL or more so the agency can follow up with the employer. Cal/OSHA has drafted a revised lead standard that would reduce the BLL limit (likely to 10 µg/dL), reduce the action level (from 30 µg/dL to two µg/dL) and lower the amount of lead allowed in the air.

Similar to California, Washington state’s proposal calls for reducing the BLL limit and the BLL threshold for a return to work. The Washington standard would also create new requirements for workers who handle metals with high lead content, who work where lead dust accumulates or who work in areas where airborne lead dust exceeds 10 µg/m3 (the current federal OSHA standard is 30 µg/m3).

If passed, the Washington standard would create the most protective lead standard in the country. Lowering the airborne lead threshold would also make the standard apply to more workplaces, such as battery manufacturers. That’s drawn some opposition from employers, with one industry source saying, “When you move to much lower thresholds, you start to scoop in a lot of industries that may not even know they’re using lead.”

The quote above sums up exactly why the airborne exposure limit needs to be lowered. If an employer doesn’t know they’re exposing their workforce to lead, how can they reduce exposures? How can workers speak up if protections aren’t in place when they don’t even know they’re being exposed?

There’s a broad, multi-agency push underway to reduce lead exposure from legacy sources like drinking water service lines. It’s time for federal OSHA and state OSHA programs to get off the sidelines and take action to protect workers from acute and chronic lead exposure that can do lasting damage to workers’ health.

 [Nick Fox]

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