Earlier this year, California proposed a new occupational lead standard that, if approved, would become the most protective in the country. Exposure to lead is a serious health and safety concern for all people. However, while efforts to protect consumers from the dangerous effects of lead are ramping up, there’s one group that’s been left out: workers. Because of outdated federal standards, workers can be exposed to levels of lead well beyond what’s considered safe for the general public. But some states are taking it upon themselves to change that.
“There’s no reason for any worker to be overexposed to lead in 2023,” says LIUNA General President and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Brent Booker. “We know the dangers of lead and the ways to protect workers from those dangers. It’s time for OSHA to revise their 40-year-old standard and for employers to use these modernized state standards as an example to better protect their workers.”
Federal OSHA’s current lead standard for construction workers hasn’t been updated since 1978. That standard aims to keep a worker’s blood lead level (BLL) under 40 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL). However, adverse health effects have been observed at as little as five µg/dL in adults. Experts agree that these regulations don’t reflect the most up-to-date research about lead and don’t adequately protect workers. The risks of lead, how exposure is measured and how to remove it from a jobsite are so well-known that we know exactly what a revised standard should look like: lower permissible exposure limits (PELs), a lower actionable BLL and more engineering controls to remove lead from jobsites.
Stronger State-Specific Standards
A few states with OSHA-approved state plans have taken it upon themselves to develop their own more stringent standards to protect workers from lead exposure. In 2018, Michigan became the first state to do so after battling with the effects of lead from the Flint water crisis. The Michigan standard requires workers to be removed from a job when their BLL reaches 30 µg/dL and states they can’t return until their BLL drops to 15 µg/dL or below.
Michigan’s standard is undoubtedly more protective than its federal counterpart, but California recently upped the ante with its newly proposed lead standard. Cal/OSHA proposed the following changes for both construction and general industry:
- Reduce exposure to airborne lead with stricter PELs: California’s plan proposes to reduce the PEL from 50 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) of air to 10 µg/m3.
- Updating the action level (AL) for airborne lead: The current AL for airborne lead is 30 µg/m3. California is proposing to reduce that to two µg/m3.
- Expand blood lead testing requirements and decrease the actionable BLL: The proposal aims to keep a worker’s BLL under 10 µg/dL, which is four times lower than the current standard.
What’s noteworthy about this proposal is the dramatically lower PEL. PELs limit how much lead a worker can be exposed to in the first place, and a lower PEL ideally encourages employers to institute engineering controls that reduce the amount of lead on a jobsite. BLL, on the other hand, is used to monitor lead in the blood once exposure has occurred. Under California’s proposed updates, the allowable level of lead exposure would decline by 80 percent and the threshold for when workers would be removed from a job would decrease by 40 percent. If implemented, this could prevent thousands of lead poisoning cases in California every year.
Mitigating Lead Risks at Work
Employers can take the following steps to protect workers from lead on the job:
- Provide respirators for workers
- Frequent BLL testing
- Ensuring lead-free break and lunch areas
- Ensuring floors and surfaces are free of dust containing lead
- Vacuuming instead of sweeping
- Requiring employees to change clothing before leaving
California’s proposed standard is the most protective in the U.S. and has the ability to spark positive change in the construction industry. Health and safety leaders and advocates have been urging OSHA to create more stringent regulations to protect workers, and if successful, this plan could be a blueprint for the agency and other states to follow.
However, the California proposal has been met with backlash and opposition from other stakeholders, who argue the proposal is too stringent, complicated and could be unnecessarily burdensome for employers. Federal OSHA is currently considering possible revisions to its own lead standard, specifically input on the BLL requirements for medical removal from work. But while an updated lead standard is on the docket, a new standard isn’t expected anytime soon.
There are steps employers can take to protect workers even in the absence of a federal standard. Inadequate lead protections can result in serious and sometimes irreversible health effects, so employers should follow the hierarchy of controls and take steps to minimize lead exposure well before the action level is reached. For help on how to reduce lead exposures on your jobsite, reach out to the Occupational Safety & Health Division of the LHSFNA.