Lead Exposure Persists for Painters, Metal Workers

Workers in construction trades continue to account for a large percentage of those exposed to dangerous levels of lead, according to a federal report. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that from 2002 to 2011, occupational exposure caused 7,076 adults in the U.S. to have very high blood lead levels (BLL), defined as being at or above 40 g/dL. Within this group, 49% were employed in battery manufacturing, nonferrous metal production, or painting and wallcovering contracting. Painting, renovation, and remodeling work were also prominent causes in the 6% of cases with a known exposure source that was not occupationally related, CDC noted. In two case histories provided by the CDC, one worker was exposed to lead by recycling the grit and steel shot from his companys sandblasting operations, and another had been scraping paint without appropriate protections. These types of work-related exposures may result in such high lead levels in part because the Occupational Safety and Health Administrations (OSHA) lead standards do not require medical removal for construction workers until their BLL reaches 50 g/dL, while CDCs reference level for a healthy adult is 10 g/dL. In addition, workers may return to work as soon as their BLL falls below 40 g/dL, leaving them vulnerable to chronic exposure. CDC recommends that employers increase efforts to reduce exposure and that examining physicians exercise their authority to order leave or transfers for patients even if BLLs are lower than current OSHA standards.

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