Bill Advances to Protect California Workers From Lead Exposure on the Job

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For Immediate Release: 
Wednesday, May 29, 2019

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – California lawmakers passed a measure Wednesday to safeguard workers and their families from the toxic effects of lead exposure, following revelations that state officials failed to investigate hundreds of cases of lead-poisoned workers.  

Assembly Bill 35, which now goes to the State Senate, would ensure that the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA, is notified when workers are poisoned by high levels of lead and then initiates a workplace safety investigation. 

Workers in areas that use or process lead must get their blood tested regularly, with the results forwarded to the state Department of Public Health, or CDPH. An investigation last year by Capital & Main, a nonprofit news site, and the University of Southern California Center for Health Journalism revealed that CDPH knew of businesses where workers were repeatedly found with unsafe levels of lead yet did virtually nothing about it. 

Lead is a highly toxic metal with the potential for profound and permanent adverse health effects in both children and adults, including high blood pressure and cognitive difficulties, miscarriages or premature birth, and irreversible nervous system and kidney damage. At high levels, exposure can be fatal.

AB 35 will require CDPH to automatically forward cases of high blood lead levels to Cal/OSHA for immediate investigation. Cal/OSHA is responsible for enforcing occupational safety regulations and may issue citations for violations that include fines. 

“We applaud Assembly Member Ash Kalra for introducing this legislation,” said Bill Allayaud, director of government affairs for Environmental Working Group in California.

“Until now, the Department of Public Health has not seen fit to come down hard on businesses that repeatedly stood by while their workers suffered from lead exposure, potentially tracking lead dust home to their families, including children and pregnant women, who are especially vulnerable to the effects of lead.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no safe level of lead in blood. State law requires Cal/OSHA to monitor, analyze and propose worker health and safety standards, but there is no statutory standard or requirement that determines when Cal/OSHA must investigate incidences of workers’ lead poisoning.

AB 35 would fill this gap. When a worker is identified as having an elevated blood lead level at or above 20 micrograms per deciliter, the bill requires CDPH to refer the case to Cal/OSHA, which must initiate a worksite investigation to address the cause of lead exposure and ensure there are workplace protections and safety protocols. This referral procedure has already been adopted by 37 other states.

Every year in California there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of workers known to have elevated blood lead levels. More than 300 of those cases involve lead poisoning so severe the federal Occupational Safety Health Administration has declared that inspections for these types of workplaces should “be considered high-gravity, serious and must be handled by inspection.”

Once notified of the problem by CDPH, Cal/OSHA is responsible for enforcing occupational regulations and may issue citations for violations and employer fines. However, there is often a disconnect about warning the potentially affected workers or addressing the exposure problem at the work site in a timely manner, because CDPH does not have a lead blood level that would trigger a referral to Cal/OSHA. The Capital & Main/USC investigation found more than 500 cases in the past decade where inspections could have been carried out by Cal/OSHA but were not due to CDPH’s failure to refer the case.  

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