Flash Report: Historic Decision about Lead

After more than two hours of testimony by stakeholders and a more-than 13-year rulemaking effort, the Cal/OSHA Standards Board approved highly controversial revisions to the Title 8 lead standards. It was a 5 to 2 vote. 

Employer representatives urged the Board to postpone the vote and to send them back to the advisory committee for a “true dialogue” with stakeholders. Employers wanted revisions through the 15-day notice-of-modification process. 

Bruce Wick, director of risk management for Housing Contractors of California, said the Board could vote on a revised proposal within seven months. Board members Kathleen Crawford and Chris Laszcz-Davis supported him in his effort. 

But the employer’s effort failed. 

“We’re in a bad situation, and it’s already been 13 years,” Board Chair David Thomas said. Public member Joseph Alioto, Jr., added that while he supported small businesses and took their impassioned comments to heart, “The evidence is undeniable” that the lead standards need updating. 

However, one pro-revision stakeholder commented that not adopting the standard immediately meant Cal/OSHA would have to “start all over again.” 

The proposal revises General Industry Safety Orders §§ 5155 and 5198 and Construction Safety Orders §1532.1. It lowers the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for lead from 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 10 µg/m3, an 80% reduction, and the action level (AL) from 30 µg/m3 to 2, a 93% drop.  

The proposal has a higher PEL and AL than the California Department of Public Health recommended. It does include mitigation measures such as hygiene facilities and practices that the Cal/OSHA says will reduce lead ingestion and cross-contamination.  

Stakeholders, including some industrial hygienists, have vocally opposed those dramatic decreases, and some have suggested that the current levels are sufficiently protective. They also have said the costs of implementing the changes have been vastly understated in the official economic assessment. 

But occupational health experts, including former members of the Standards Board, say the science supports the change to the 45-year-old standards. “It’s really been alarming over the last decades that cardiovascular effects can occur” at even low blood lead levels, says Dr. Robert Harrison, an occupational health physician and former Board member. “You’re facing a decision on irrefutable science. You’re taking a historic vote.” 

Employer representatives predict the revisions will be a nightmare to implement. “We can’t comply if we don’t understand what is being asked of us,” comments Sharon Hilke of Painting and Decorating Contractors of California. She holds it is a “moral and legal imperative” for the Board to make the regulations clear. 

Christopher Lee, a former DOSH and Fed-OSHA enforcement official, states, “This proposal is not only voluminous – it’s overly complicated.” 

The revisions now go to the Office of Administrative Law for final approval and an effective date. DOSH Deputy Chief for Health Eric Berg says implementation will be delayed until January 1st, 2025.