October 19, 2023

NIOSH Reminds Workers to "Leave Lead at Work"

As federal OSHA and some states consider regulations that would provide greater protections against workplace lead exposures, a new publication on the NIOSH website explains how workers can avoid exposing family members and others to lead. The document advises workers to change into different clothes at the end of their workday and to store a separate set of clothes and shoes in a dedicated locker at work. Lunch containers should also be left at work, the document says.

Other safe-lead practices described in the document include handwashing with soap designed to remove lead before meals; never eating, drinking, or smoking in areas where lead dust is present; correctly wearing required personal protective equipment; and using a high-efficiency particulate air vacuum or wet methods to clean areas that could be contaminated with lead.

The definition of an elevated blood lead level (BLL) in the United States changed in 2011 from 25 µg/dL to 10 µg/dL. According to the NIOSH Adult Blood Lead Exposure Surveillance (ABLES) program, which monitors data on workplace lead exposures, about 90 percent of adults with known lead exposures and BLLs greater than or equal to 10 µg/dL are exposed to lead at work. While the prevalence rate of U.S. adults with elevated BLLs has fallen from 23 cases per 100,000 employed workers in 2011 to 11 per 100,000 in 2021, the most recent year for which data are available, certain states and industries have significantly higher incidence of elevated BLLs. Among states that participate in ABLES, Missouri had 1,941 cases of work-related elevated BLLs in 2021, more than the next three states combined (California, Georgia, and Kansas). Manufacturing, construction, services, and mining are the industries with the highest percentage of workers who have elevated BLLs, with manufacturing accounting for 74 percent of all cases in 2021.

In June 2022, OSHA published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking for lead standards in general industry and construction that asked stakeholders to comment on reducing the current lead permissible exposure limit of 50 µg/m3 of lead over an eight-hour time-weighted average or its action level of 30 µg/m3. The agency is also considering lowering the BLL at which workers are medically removed from work with lead. Currently, the medical removal levels are 60 µg/dL in general industry and 50 µg/dL in construction. In both industries, employees can return to lead-exposed work after being medically removed when their BLL falls below 40 µg/dL.

Michigan promulgated a new lead rule in 2018 that requires workers to be removed when their BLL reaches 30 μg/dL. They cannot return to work involving lead exposure until their BLL falls below 15 μg/dL. Other states considering new lead regulations include California and Washington.

The NIOSH document “Leave Lead at Work” can be downloaded from the agency’s website. For more information, see the NIOSH webpage on lead.