Lead is a well-known, highly toxic heavy metal that can cause severe health problems to those exposed to it. Even low levels of lead exposure can result in issues such as high blood pressure, damage to the brain and nervous system, joint and muscle pain, mood disorders and reproductive problems. Lead exposure can occur through inhalation, ingestion or skin contact with lead-containing materials.
“As more of our LIUNA brothers and sisters are put to work modernizing our infrastructure, more of them could be exposed to lead,” says LIUNA General President and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Brent Booker. “We must take the steps necessary to minimize exposure to this toxin and continue to fight for more stringent regulations to protect all workers.”
When discussing lead, we often hear about children because they’re the most vulnerable to lead poisoning and its dangers. However, lead poisoning is also a serious threat for adults. Lead exposure is common in construction, where lead-based paints, pipes and other materials are often used.
There are regulations in place to protect workers from occupational lead exposure, but they are woefully out of date. To understand these regulations, it’s important to first understand the measurements currently used to determine when workers are at risk and when action should be taken.
Permissible Exposure Limits & Blood Lead Levels
(PELs) are established by OSHA and require employers to protect workers from excessive exposure to toxic substances. The current federal OSHA PEL for lead in construction is 50 μg/m3 (micrograms of lead per cubic meter of air) averaged over an eight-hour workday. The action level (AL), which is the air concentration of lead that triggers requirements for certain controls, is set at 30 μg/m3 over an eight-hour period. When the concentration of lead in the air reaches the AL, employers must begin exposure monitoring and medical surveillance. If the air concentration exceeds the PEL, employers must institute other engineering controls, such as wet mopping or using a ventilator to reduce lead in the air.
It’s well-established that many federal OSHA PELs are incredibly outdated and not adequately protective. OSHA’s PEL for lead in construction isn’t actually a safe level of exposure, but rather an absolute limit that shouldn’t be exceeded. The truth is that even exposure levels well below the PEL can cause health problems, which is why many safety professionals have advocated for more stringent PELs and regulations.
Blood lead level (BLL) is a measure of the amount of lead in a person’s bloodstream. BLL doesn’t give any information about lead stored in body tissues, how long the person has been exposed to lead or how that lead is affecting their body. There’s a lot of variability in how people respond to different levels of lead, so it’s difficult to predict health outcomes based on BLL alone. Other factors – such as the length of time someone has an elevated BLL – also play a big role. Because of that, BLL isn’t an exact predictor of health, but it is a helpful indicator of a person’s likelihood to experience lead-related illness.
Another weakness of BLL is that, on its own, it’s unlikely to provide adequate protection for workers. That’s because the BLL allowed by federal OSHA is much higher than what’s considered safe and also because BLL testing occurs after exposure has already happened. While the CDC considers a BLL of 10 µg/dL (micrograms per deciliter) or above to be elevated for an adult, OSHA’s current lead standard sets the BLL limit to 40 µg/dL. The agency requires blood lead testing every six months for workers exposed to the AL of airborne lead more than 30 days a year. In construction, a BLL of 50 µg/dL or higher results in medical removal from the job. If removed, an employee isn’t allowed to return to work until their BLL is 40 µg/dL or less.
A Case for Stronger Standards
Comparing the lead exposure allowed for construction workers with the lead exposure recommended for consumers shows wide gaps in what’s considered acceptable. At a BLL of 5 µg/dL, adults can experience impaired kidney and reproductive function, high blood pressure and cognitive effects. However, intervention at work doesn’t happen until a worker’s BLL is 10 times that. This disparity puts workers at risk for lasting health effects. Several states are working to update and significantly lower the acceptable exposure limit for workers. However, nothing has been passed yet and these proposals have been met with much opposition.
Overall, it’s important for employers to follow the hierarchy of controls and take the steps necessary to minimize lead exposure as much as possible, well before the action level is reached. Employees exposed to lead at work are also at risk of taking lead home with them. Therefore, inadequate OSHA standards may also result in dangerous lead exposure for children and other family members. The LHSFNA has long advocated for the most protective standards and going above the bare minimum to keep workers safe. It’s time for federal and state regulatory agencies to catch up and protect all workers from toxic lead exposure.