Department of Labor Proposes Updated Lead Exposure Standard

Published On
Jul 7, 2022

The Department of Labor (DOL) announced in June 2022 that it has published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM), aimed at revising its standards for occupational exposure to lead.

The proposed rule would lower the triggers needed for medical removal protection and medical surveillance, such as reducing the blood lead level (BLL) that triggers medical removal protection. It also aims to prevent harmful health effects in workers exposed to lead more effectively by reducing the acceptable exposure limit, updating provisions for medical surveillance (including blood lead monitoring), PPE, housekeeping, hygiene and training.

“The electrical industry has had a long history of exposure to lead in the past, from lead paint and lead covered cables to dipping wire connections in lead to ensure conductivity and prevent corrosion,” said Wesley Wheeler, NECA’s executive director of safety. “It is prudent for electrical contractors to review this ANPRM to see if they fall into any of the categories and conditions that require employee monitoring. The ANPRM is seeking to lower current established surveillance and action permissible exposure limits in both general industry and construction to match what some individual state plans have implemented in recent years. Another key point is requiring employers to provide impermeable PPE to prevent absorbing lead though the skin, a common exposure to lead in construction.”

The ANPRM comes about due to continued research into the effects of lead exposure, which strongly indicates that adults experience adverse health effects at lower blood lead levels than those specified in the medical removal levels in OSHA’s current lead standards, which were set in 1978.

OSHA’s current lead standards include exposure limits (e.g., 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air averaged over an 8-hour period for the construction industry) and set medical removal protection provisions at BLLs of 50 micrograms/dL for construction and 60 micrograms/dL for general industry.

According to OSHA, however, studies indicate that chronic exposure in adults that results in a BLL as low as 10 micrograms/dL are associated with an array of maladies, including impaired kidney function, high blood pressure, nervous system and neurobehavioral effects and cognitive dysfunction later in life. In addition, pregnant women should be particularly careful, as lead exposure can have adverse effects on a developing fetus, including “subtle cognitive effects.”

As chronic BLLs rise to 20 micrograms/dL and higher, adverse effects worsen in severity and can include cognitive impairment, visual-motor dexterity impairment, lower reaction times, fertility issues, fatigue, headache, joint pain, sleep disturbance and more, according to OSHA.

“It is important for electrical contractors to identify the tasks where lead exposure could be present and ensure that BLL testing is performed on individuals that could be expected to have lead exposures in the workplace,” Wheeler said. “Also, a key provision for employers to be aware of is the safe harbor protocols for incidental lead paint exposures in construction/renovation, repair and painting work where OSHA identifies that disturbing painted surfaces can create additional hazards. By following the safe harbor guidelines, direct monitoring of employee exposures would not be required.”

As part of the ANPRM process, the DOL will be gathering comments, including information about what practices employers currently use to address workplace lead exposure and the associated costs, as well as other areas of interest.

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