Recently, a Wisconsin shipyard settled a lawsuit with an employee who had lead levels more than seven times the safe level. A report in 2017 showed almost 75% of the shipyard’s workers had blood lead poisoning. The same shipyard had safety violations before, as far back as 1993.
This time the company paid a $700,000 fine to OSHA without admitting fault and has since implemented a safety program that includes personal protective equipment and air respirators. They also agreed to conduct independent health and safety audits.
Is this an isolated incident? No. You can find many other examples of companies ignoring their responsibilities by not reducing lead exposure to their employees. Some are caught and charged, but many others get away with it.
Who is responsible for the health and safety of the employee?
Is it the EPA? In 1970, the Nixon Administration created the Environmental Protection Agency and charged them with overseeing improving pollution in the environment. Their statistics show a 99% reduction of lead in the air from 1980 to 2016.
Is it OSHA? In 1971, the United States government created the Occupational Safety and Health Organization to oversee workplace safety in the states. According to OSHA, their statistics show a dramatic decrease in worker deaths, down from an estimated 14,000 in 1971 to just over 5000 in 2016. Again – over 5000 workers still died on the job in 2016.
Is it Congress? Since 1970, Congress has passed significant environmental legislation, including:
- 1970 – The Clean Air Act: established air pollutions standards and eventually banned the sale of leaded gasoline to passenger cars.
- 1971 – Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act, restricted the lead content in paint used in housing built with federal funds
- 1972 – Clean Water Act. Regulated the discharge of pollution into waters
- 1976 – Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Regulated the manufacture and sale of chemicals.
- 1977 – Lead paint ban as part of TSCA.
- 2008 – EPA’s Lead-Based Paint Renovation, Repair, and Painting Rule. Required certification for workers who deal with lead in construction,
- 2016 – Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. Revised the TSCA.
Is it employers? The government, through legislation and agency oversight, puts the responsibility on employers to provide hazard-free workplaces. As you saw in the case of the shipbuilder, companies don’t always comply. Many do, though. Compliance doesn’t make the news.
Is it Enough?
Is enough being done to protect workers in 2018? Yes and no.
Yes. As evidenced by the laws and organization referenced here, the government does take action, and employers do eventually implement. Many times the pace seems too slow because laws give industry time to adapt and workers continue to be at risk.
No. Still, OSHA estimates that over 1.5 million workers are potentially exposed to lead each year. This number is significant, but is it an improvement? How many exposures are too many?
Perhaps you agree this is too much. If so, what can be done? Society often likes to think of problems as someone else’s or looks to the government for answers.
In the case of lead exposure, we all should be vigilant about reducing risks, whether at home or in the workplace. As a safety professional, you can take extra steps. Just don’t reduce exposure to government-mandated limits. Eliminate exposure when possible. When elimination seems impossible, find a way to make it possible.
Lead has been a hazard for thousands of years. For most of that time, society knew it was harmful. Even so, they continued to use it. Will people continue to use it in 2018 and beyond knowingly? Yes, humans can be slow learners and indifferent to their health.
Will ever enough be done to protect all workers in the future? Probably not, but all of us – individuals, businesses, and government – can have that as our goal and keep working toward a lead-free world.
If you need a training partner for lead safety practices, don’t hesitate to reach out to us.