California’s lack of a lead-poisoning benchmark for workers and the reluctance of state agencies to adopt tougher rules governing lead exposure in the workplace have become a serious occupational hazard, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Unlike the majority of other states, California hasn’t adopted the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) standard for lead, which sets a “red line” of 25 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. Under the standard, any reading above that level automatically triggers an OSHA inspection of the workplace.
California, however, lacks a lead-poisoning benchmark that would prompt an inspection by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, better known as Cal/OSHA. And the state apparently has no intention of instituting regulations that would better protect workers from lead exposure.
According to the LA Times, Governor Jerry Brown last month vetoed a state bill that would have required the Department of Public Health to alert Cal/OSHA any time tests showed a worker has an excessively high blood lead level.
Gov. Brown had upwards of 1,200 bills to consider at the close of the last legislative session, so he relies on advisors and state agencies to inform his decision, according to the LA Times. In the case of Assembly Bill 2963 – the bill that would have mandated Cal/OSHA action on occupational lead poisoning – the California Dept. of Public Health “appears to have nudged him toward sticking with the status quo.”
Illuminating how dangerous this lack of regulatory action is for California workers, the LA Times points to the Exide Technologies battery recycling plant in Vernon, California, which contaminated an estimated 10,000 homes and yards with levels of lead that are extremely toxic to developing children. Hundreds of Exide workers were chronically lead-poisoned as well, yet the Department of Public Health never referred Exide to Cal/OSHA for enforcement.
Lead is a potent neurotoxin that can affect nearly every system in the body, produces no obvious symptoms, and frequently goes unrecognized, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Lead poisoning can result in anemia, weakness, kidney and brain damage, and death. Symptoms are wide-ranging and include fatigue, mood swings, sexual disorders, memory loss, and abdominal pain, to name just a few.
Regulators in California’s neighbor to the north say that a definitive benchmark for lead levels is critical to worker health. In an interview with the LA Times, Michael Wood, administrator for Oregon OSHA, said that having automatic triggers in place for nearly a decade has allowed his agency to identify unsafe workplace conditions before they worsen.
“The use of a relatively accurate mile marker enables us to identify overexposures when they occur, so that we can take appropriate action on behalf of workers,” Mr. Wood told the LA Times.
The LA Times notes that California sends workplace lead cases to Cal/OSHA “for enforcement, if needed, on a case-by-case basis,” as Gov. Brown said in his veto statement, yet the arrangement has clearly failed the sickened Exide workers.