New California Law Protects Workers From Toxic Lead Poisoning
SACRAMENTO. Calif. – Last night Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a powerful measure that will help California protect workers from toxic lead poisoning. With his signature, the governor has directed health officials to automatically refer cases of high blood lead levels in workers for review and possible action.
Environmental Working Group sponsored Assembly Bill 35 by Assembly Member Ash Kalra (D-San Jose). It will ensure that workers who are exposed to high levels of lead poisoning are made known to the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA. It requires the division to conduct a workplace safety investigation to determine the cause of the lead exposure and help businesses correct the cause of the lead poisoning. The bill also requires any citations and fines imposed by Cal/OSHA following completed investigations to be made publically available each year.
“We thank Gov. Newsom for giving the issue of lead poisoning at the workplace the action it deserves,” said Bill Allayaud, EWG’s California director of government affairs. “Investigations have shown that some businesses have been exposing workers to dangerous levels of lead year after year. But the new law requires that state agencies take immediate action and no longer sweep the lead issue under the rug.”
“I am grateful for Governor Newsom’s signature on AB 35, which will improve how public health officials are made aware of, and handle cases of lead poisoning among workers in California,” said Assembly Member Kalra. “Without this important legislation, countless numbers of employees will remain exposed to lead at their jobs, making them vulnerable to irreparable neurological damage and heart disease. AB 35 will help to ensure proper oversight and that timely action is taken by our state agencies when elevated exposures to lead are reported.”
The bill mandates that when the state Department of Public Health receives a report of high lead levels in the blood of workers, it must refer that case to Cal/OSHA, which would then be required to open an investigation within three days and complete it within six months.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no safe level of lead exposure. Although existing state law requires Cal/OSHA to monitor, analyze, and propose health and safety standards for workers, there is no statutory standard or requirement as to when Cal/OSHA must investigate incidences of lead poisoning of workers.
AB 35 fills this gap by making it clear that when a worker is identified to have an elevated blood lead level at or above 20 micrograms per deciliter, the health department must refer the case to Cal/OSHA. That agency must then initiate an investigation of the worksite to help address the cause of the lead exposure and workplace protections and safety protocols.
The action level of 20 micrograms per deciliter of blood is consistent with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s guideline, which has already been adopted by 37 other states.
State data derived from has revealed that every year in California there are hundreds, perhaps thousands. of workers who are known to have elevated levels of lead in their blood. More than 300 of those cases involve lead poisoning so severe that federal regulators declared that such inspections “shall be considered high-gravity, serious and must be handled by inspection.”
Once notified of the problem, 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 the health department currently lacks a mandate that triggers a referral to Cal/OSHA.
An investigation published by Capitol and Main and supported by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism has found more than 500 cases in the last decade where inspections could have been carried out by Cal/OSHA but were not.
AB 35 has broad support from workers unions and environmental advocacy groups, including the California Labor Federation, California Teamsters Public Affairs Council, SEIU California, the Center for Environmental Health, tpublished by Capitol and Mainhe California League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club California and Clean Water Action.
The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.