Lowering workplace lead exposure limits will result in cost savings, researcher says
Boston – Lower workplace lead exposure limits could potentially reap annual benefits of nearly $40,000 per “highly exposed” worker, according to a study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Exposure to lead has been tied to cardiovascular problems, nerve disorders, decreased kidney function and fertility issues. OSHA requires most general industry workers to be removed from lead exposure when their blood lead levels are equal to or greater than 60 micrograms per deciliter (50 µg/dL for workers in the construction industry), and allows workers to return to the job when their blood lead level test results are below 40 µg/dL on two consecutive tests.
For the study, Ronnie Levin, visiting scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health’s Exposure, Epidemiology and Risk Program Department, examined worker data reported to NIOSH – as well as literature about the adverse health effects of lead exposure in adults – to estimate the benefits of decreasing the occupational limit to less than 30 µg/dL for the approximately 10,000 U.S. workers exposed to lead.
Total direct costs (medical expenses) and indirect costs (including lost time, pay and productivity) per year were estimated at more than $392 million. “At almost $40,000 per exposed worker as a lower bound estimate, cost effective controls are possible,” Levin said.
Levin noted that workers pay 18 percent to 44 percent of direct costs and as much as 90 percent of indirect costs, while employers, workers and consumers “absorb costs” through lower pay, higher prices and lower profits.
“This is probably a very low estimate of the actual annual costs of high lead occupational exposures in the U.S., and should be understood as merely indicative of the potential benefits of reducing those exposures,” Levin said.
The study was published online May 13 in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health.