Comment |

Wanted: Common Sense on Next Lead Regs


By Robert Ikenberry

Recently, when I took my annual C5 refresher, I was reminded that the OSHA Lead in Construction standard is now almost two decades old.

It’s always a good idea to revisit regulations and standards. And while lead regulations have greatly changed the way industrial painting (especially repainting) is performed, they certainly aren't perfect.

But draft regulations now being considered by California’s Cal/OSHA may leave employers and workers 0 for 2, setting a bar that will both make compliance difficult and do little to improve worker safety.

As California Goes…

California has had its own version of the Lead Standard (8CCR section 1532.1) for some time, but it pretty closely follows the federal version.

Now, what's being considered in California should be followed by anyone who deals with lead paint removal, since standards initially implemented there have a way of spreading across the country.

To be clear, most of my comments apply to revisions recommended by the California Department of Public Health's Occupational Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (OLPPP).

Cal/OSHA has not yet proposed them as draft regulations, but the recommendations have been published by OLPPP and Cal/OSHA has to consider them all formally (see for more info).

Reduce, Uncouple, Prohibit

Major changes proposed by OLPPP include:

• Reducing Permissible Exposure Limits (PEL) and Action Levels (AL) from 50 and 30 mcg/m3 respectively, to lower—but as-yet-undefined—limits;

• Triggering Medical Removal Protection (MRP) at Blood Lead Levels (BLLs) as low as 20 mcg/dl (two tests) with return to lead work only after two monthly tests below 15 mcg/dl.  Current MRP levels are 50 (two tests) with return below 40;

• Uncoupling Blood Lead Level (BLL) testing from airborne exposures and making all workers in “areas where lead is present or disturbed” subject to medical monitoring; and.

• Totally prohibiting certain activities, such as flame cutting on steel painted with lead, without regard to the ability of the torch cutters to be protected or the efficiency or practicality of paint removal before flame cutting.

But Wait…

Want more? Numerous other recommendations include:

• Requiring employers to provide protective shoes (as well as the current clothing) to all workers performing lead-disturbing tasks or those exposed to lead at or above the (new) Action Level;

• Requiring frequent laboratory or calibrated field testing of all surfaces of change rooms or eating areas with a numerical limit for lead contamination;

• Training for lead workers that is participatory and hands-on (with lecture-style training prohibited);

• Increased comprehensive medical exams (all workers annually, not just those with elevated BLLs); and

• Requiring engineering and work practice controls unless employers can prove they are impractical.

Where’s the Science?

The science to justify these recommendations comes from a very few studies, conducted primarily by staff of OLPPP and similar public-health insiders with strong ties to state regulatory programs.

It’s also worth noting that these measures would greatly increase the number of lead tests conducted, and therefore reviewed, by OLPPP.  The primary justification for the agency’s existence is to review BLLs, so the office proposes to significantly increase its staff and influence (and budget) through these changes.

A Better Way?

Today’s federal and state Lead in Construction regulations were implemented as interim standards in the early ‘90s, based on studies conducted in the 1970s.

 Flame cutting on steel painted with lead could be banned, without considering how to protect the torch cutters or the possibility of removing the paint before cutting.

Flame cutting on steel painted with lead could be banned, without considering methods and processes that could protect the torch cutters.

Things have changed significantly since then. For one, removing lead from gasoline greatly reduced the public’s overall exposure to lead. Public average BLLs have declined dramatically in the past 30 years as a direct result of this very positive action.

Meanwhile, because the standard began as an interim measure, public comment and thorough vetting were less than rigorous at the time.

So it's past time for a review. But in today’s environment, which focuses on making regulations cost-effective and easier to comply with, and which looks unkindly on “job killing” measures, there may be a better way.

Keeping It Simple

In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, California had a special emphasis program on Lead Standard enforcement and saw many contractors struggle to comply with the complex, sometimes ineffective, requirements.

So they approached the issue with an out-of-the-box idea to come up with simple, step-by-step, prescriptive measures that contractors could take to be in compliance.

Using simple matrices, contractors could measure the amount of lead in the paint they had to remove, consider the removal method required and the scope of work, and then know that a number of proactive steps had to be taken.

No complex lead plans prepared by CIHs, no expensive air monitoring—just straight-forward, common-sense rules: If you’re scraping lead paint with hand tools, put down ground covers and pick up the scraps with HEPA vacuums.  If you’re abrasive blasting on paint with 5,000 ppm lead or more, implement full containment, medical monitoring, showers, etc.

And always train the workers on the basic health effects of lead and the specific rules for the project.

Can We Talk?

While at the time, they didn't have sufficient science to prove their case and justify the selected practices, we’ve learned a lot in the intervening 10 years and it may be time to look at a simpler, more practical approach to Lead in Construction, both in California and nationwide.

Let’s have a real discussion this time, with all stakeholders, and examine all the options.

What do you think?


Robert Ikenberry

Robert Ikenberry, PCS, has been in industrial painting and construction since 1975. Now semi-retired as the Safety Director and Project Manager for California Engineering Contractors, Robert stays busy rehabbing, retrofitting and painting bridges. His documentary on the 1927 Carquinez Bridge was the pilot for National Geographic’s Break it Down and an episode of MegaStructures.



Tagged categories: Bridges; Program/Project Management; Health & Safety; Health and safety; Lead; Lead paint abatement; Paint and coatings removal; Regulations; Worker training

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (9/5/2012, 10:46 AM)

Several years ago, TxDOT changed the standard procedure for torch-cutting steel on bridges if lead is present. Lead paint must be removed prior to the torch cutting.

Comment from Burt Olhiser, (9/5/2012, 10:52 AM)

I think you are spot on Rob, a review of what's needed and not and a simplification of the rule to make it more user friendly is way past due. BTW -- great article.

Comment from Richard Lopeman, (9/5/2012, 2:05 PM)

Obviously you cannot implement ' new ' standards and regulations, based on studies from the 1970's. New studies need to be undertaken, with emphasis on sources of lead, workers BLL's, easier methods of testing existing coatings for lead content, quantifying lead in such coatings and improved, up-to-date abatement methods.

Comment from Gerald Burbank, (9/6/2012, 7:54 AM)

Increasing regulatory controls do not always dictate the level of compliance achieved by contractors and won't necessarily lead to improvements in worker's health. In the late 1980's, I completed one of the largest lead removal projects in the country. During the course of the job, we discovered that personal hygiene was the single most important component of our worker protection program. Blood lead levels were not related to airborne concentrations of lead (which were in excess of 50,000 ug/m3), but were directly related to the workers compliance with simple hygiene procedures, including the cessation of smoking in the work zone, and proper use of respiratory protection. Employee blood lead levels were more directly related to the employee's willingness to wash their hands prior to eating, and with the removal of cigarettes from the work area than any other factor. We were able to control exposures at that time with simple common sense practices. We required employees to stop smoking in the work area and wash their hands before eating. The answer to maintaining workers health does not lie in increasing regulations. The regulations in place offer more than enough safeguards to keep workers healthy. The answer to worker health and safety is in compliance with the current regulations, not in promulgating more. The fact that reputable contractors are able to perform lead abatement in safe and responsible manner attests to that.

Comment from Catherine Brooks, (9/6/2012, 11:16 AM)

Gerald, can you send me a copy of your study? I have been looking for resources to share with contractors. They often do not understand their workers' risks and that even the dreaded RRP practices can help.

Comment from Kevin Sayler, (9/6/2012, 1:00 PM)

Gerald, excellent point regarding hygiene. I too have found the exact some thing, proper hygiene is one of the most important issues which is not followed as it should be. Regarding the proposal of "Uncoupling Blood Lead Level (BLL) testing from airborne exposures and making all workers in 'areas where lead is present or disturbed' subject to medical monitoring." I don't agree with this step if it is just present, but if in a dust or particulate form or if it is being disturbed it should be required. For along time I have found it strange that hygiene requirements and BLL measurement are not triggered until airborne exposure levels exceed the PEL. An employee can receive a significant lead dose from surface contamination being transferred to their hands and then to their mouth during eating, drinking, smoking, chewing, etc. In addition, adverse health effects from blood lead levels are now recognized by medical professionals at levels as low as 10 and 5 ug/dl. Regarding the footwear part, that is also one of the most commonly overlooked issue. Try testing for surface contamination on the floor and pedals of a lead worker's vehicle. And where do toddlers end up if allowed to play around in the car for a few minutes? On the floor. It is not just about protecting the worker, it is about protective the famil as well. Good article, enjoyed it. Discussion is important to ensure standards are actually effective.

Comment from Kevin Sayler, (9/6/2012, 6:33 PM)

Just a quick note that I forgot to mention in my post above, looks like the employee performing oxyfuel cutting is wearing a 1/2 face respirator with organic vapor cartridges on it. I don't see any particulate prefilters. Good thing they aren't actually cutting through lead containing paint. Either way, exposures could easily exceed the 10X protection factor provided by that respirator if lead based paint was being burned by that torch without local exhaust ventilation.

Comment from Gerald Burbank, (9/10/2012, 7:46 AM)

Catherine. The study I performed was done on 1988. It was an informal study based on interviewing and observing crew members. The project involved abrasive blasting with steel grit inside containment with ventilation. Most crew members BLL's were increasing rapidly. BLL's for workers involved installing and removing containment tarps were rising faster than abrasive blasters. The BLL's for several of the crew members did not increase. When we interviewed the workers, we found that the worker's with low BLL's were non-smokers, and paid particular attention to hygiene practices. One of the workers spoke very little english, and did not remove his respirator while he was working. When we implemented the hygiene practices for all employees, BLL's for the rest of the workers stopped rising. I do not have records, just anecdotal evidence based on experiences. I did present a talk to the SSPC some time between 1988 and 1990 in a panel discussion on the issue. You may be able to find references to the data in the proceedings archives.

Comment from Anna Jolly, (9/10/2012, 10:53 AM)

Interesting discussion.

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