Lead-poisoned workers: Thousands each year in the US, especially among Hispanic workers

The way some companies operate, it's no wonder that thousands of workers in the U.S. are lead poisoned each year.

In January, federal OSHA issued 14 willful and 11 repeat violations to Panthera Painting for exposing its employees to lead.  The workers were using abrasive blasting equipment to remove lead paint from several bridge structures over the Pennsylvania Turnpike and along Interstate 81.  The OSHA inspector described how the Panthera crews didn't have the proper equipment or training to do their jobs in ways to minimize exposure to lead dust.   Their exposure to lead exceeded OSHA's permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 50 ug/m3.  One worker, called the "Blaster," was exposed to a lead concentration that was five times OSHA's PEL.  The crews also didn't have appropriate respiratory protection.  The OSHA inspector noted that one worker simply had a shield taped to the front of his hard hat.  Another didn't have new filter cartridges for his respirator, "so he wore the old ones and tied his shirt over his face," the inspector wrote.

A New Hampshire firm, Franklin Non-Ferrous Foundry, received citations from OSHA last year for exposing workers to lead at concentrations as much as 1.7 times the permissible exposure limit.  The employer failed to maintain its equipment in the ways designed to control lead exposure.  On issuing the citations, OSHA's area director commented:

"This employer is well aware of the necessary procedures to safeguard workers against lead exposure hazards, having been cited for 62 violations of OSHA's lead standard since 1998, yet has chosen again to disregard them."

And then there's Welch Group Environmental, a firm that supposedly specializes in lead removal at shooting ranges.  Workers were exposed to 4 times, 8 times, and 9 times the maximum use concentrations of lead, and were not provided the proper respiratory protection.  Citations issued in 2012 by OSHA to the Welch indicate that one worker had a BLL of 61 ug/dL and another's BLL was 96 ug/dL.  OSHA's standard, which was adopted in 1978, requires employers to remove a worker from lead exposure when his or her BLL is 50 ug/dL or greater.  Public health experts consider BLLs at  or above 10 ug/dL as "elevated" and recommend interventions.

These examples from OSHA inspection cases are not anomalies.  A new report from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) provides the latest evidence that thousands of workers in the U.S. get lead poisoning.  It describes the results of blood lead tests conducted in California for the years 2008 through 2011.  (Laboratories conducting the analyses are required by State law to report the results.)    Each year, the CDPH receives about 20,000 results for which the source of lead exposure is known.   About 90% of the cases involve work-related exposures, and between 8-10 percent of the cases show elevated BLLs.  In 2011, for example, the results revealed 1,475 workers tested with elevated BLLs, including 285 with BLLs between 20-29 ug/dL of blood, and another 93 with BLLs at 30 ug/dL or higher.  Elevated BLLs in adults is associated with hypertension, decrements in renal function and cognitive dysfunction.

The CDPH's report, prepared by the Occupational Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, notes that 96-97 percent of the cases involve male workers.  A large share of the workers with elevated BLLs were employed in storage battery manufacture and battery recycling.  In addition, workers with Hispanic surnames were disproportionately represented among those with elevated BLLs.  The report authors write:

"California's workforce is 36 percent Hispanic, whereas the proportion of Hispanic surnames among individuals with elevated BLLs reported to the Registry was 64-70 percent."

A study from 10 years ago found Hispanic workers were overrepresented in Massachusetts' blood lead registry.

The report also explains why the 1,500 or so California workers identified each year with elevated BLLs is likely an undercount.  Current regulations by federal OSHA and for the states like California that run their own OSHA program (Cal/OSHA):

"...tie BLL testing requirements to air monitoring.  Employer must do initial air monitoring and, if air lead concentrations are above 30 ug/m3 more than 30 days per year, employers are required to provide employees with BLL testing.  Since many employers never conduct the required air monitoring, the BLL testing requirement is not triggered."

The staff has made recommendations to Cal/OSHA to revise its lead standard.  Specifically, they want a requirement for BLL testing for all workers who "use, alter or disturb lead or lead-containing materials in a way that releases lead dust, mist, fume or other particles," adding:

"If this recommendation were adopted we expect that the number of workers receiving a BLL test would increase significantly, allowing OLPPP to provide a more complete picture of workplace lead exposure in California in the future."

The most recent national assessment of lead poisoning prevalence among U.S. workers was published in July 2011 in MMWR.  The numbers total 6,081 cases of elevated BLL in 2008, and 4,998 in 2009.  A substantial number of the workers with elevated BLLs were employed in battery manufacturing, secondary smelting/refining non-ferrous metals, and painting.   The data, based on reports from 40 States for the years 2008 and 2009, only included BLLs at or above 25 ug/dL of blood.   There were hundreds of workers in the dataset with BLLs over 40 ug/dL---918 in 2008 and 668 in 2009.   A panel of scientific experts recommends that workers with BLLs of 30 ug/dL or greater be temporarily removed from the exposure.

The authors of the July 2011 MMWR report write:

"using a threshold of 25 ug/dL likely underestimates harmful occupational lead exposure because lead-related toxicity can occur at levels as low as 5 ug/dL and the Healthy People 2020 target is set at 10 ug/dL."

The data likely undercounts the number of lead poisoned workers in the U.S. for other reasons.  For one, it does not include data from 10 States (e.g., Arkansas, Mississippi, Nevada, West Virginia.)  More importantly, there's no way to know how many workers with elevated BLL have not been tested.  As the OLPPP staff note, if employers shirk their duty to do air monitoring for lead, the blood-lead testing requirement isn't triggered.

That's why they've made recommendations to Cal/OSHA to revise its lead standard to better protect California's workers.  Specifically, they want a requirement for BLL testing for all workers who "use, alter or disturb lead or lead-containing materials in a way that releases lead dust, mist, fume or other particles."


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