Federal labor officials are looking at revising workplace lead exposure standards they say are outdated. 

The U.S. Dept. of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking in the Federal Register June 28 seeking input on possible revision to its construction and general industry lead standards. 

Research in the decades since the standards were adopted has shown adverse health effects associated with blood lead levels (BLL) lower than what the standards cover, OSHA officials wrote in the notice. 

Current standards call for the medical removal of a construction worker with a BLL of 50 or more micrograms per deciliter or general industry worker with BLL of 60 micrograms per deciliter, and allow them to return to work after dropping below 40 micrograms per deciliter. But BLLs as low as 5 micrograms per deciliter have since been associated with impaired kidney and reproductive function, high blood pressure and cognitive effects, OSHA notes.

OSHA adopted general lead standards in 1978 and added its first construction-specific lead exposure rule in 1992. The agency has implemented emphasis programs targeting lead exposure in 1996 and 2001, which was later updated and expanded. 

A U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services study released this year shows that BLLs in the general adult population have declined from a mean 15.8 micrograms per deciliter to 0.855 micrograms per deciliter in 2018 following OSHA’s lead standards adoption. Most lead exposures among U.S. adults have historically been occupational, and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data on the 11,695 known adult lead exposures resulting in BLLs of 10 micrograms per deciliter or more showed that the majority of them were employed in four areas: construction, manufacturing, services and mining.

In recent years, several state occupational safety and health agencies have moved to revise their own lead rules. Groups including the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics and American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine have released their own guidelines and suggested revisions. And a study commissioned by the Dept. of Defense found that OSHA exposure standards on its firing ranges were not sufficiently protective, prompting the military to lower the BLL medical removal triggers for its personnel.

OSHA is seeking input for its possible rulemaking. The agency is asking questions on topics such as the BLL triggers for workers’ medical removal and their return; requirements for lead-exposed employees' medical surveillance and management; personal protective equipment; and potential provisions similar to draft lead rule revisions from California and Washington. 

Anyone interested in providing a comment can submit it online via regulations.gov though Aug. 29.