The State of Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services recently released a report on work-related lead poisoning over the last 12 years (1995-2006).  I was shocked to read that 94 percent of the workers (289 men) with blood-lead levels above 25 ug/dL were employed in the mining industry.  A follow-up story by Elizabeth Bluemink of the Anchorage Daily News reports that most of the adult blood-lead laboratory results came from the Red Dog lead-zinc mine near Kotzebue, Alaska.  Although there is no MSHA standard to protect miners from lead poisoning, Teck Cominco Alaska Inc. has some sort of lead-poisoning prevention program with routine blood-lead testing.

When I checked the mine-specific on-line injury and illness reporting system (DRS) provided on MSHA’s website, I was puzzled that none of these lead-poisoning cases were reported by Red Dog to MSHA.  Under MSHA regulations:

“mine operators and independent contractors are required to submit a report to MSHA when they are notified or otherwise learn that a miner has an illness which may have resulted from work in a mine, or for which an award of compensation has been made.” (62 Fed Reg 60673)

Then, I turned on my brain switch.  I realized that a mine operator in this situation might explain his compliance with MSHA’s illness-reporting requirements in these ways: 

  1. MSHA doesn’t have a health standard on lead, but our company is going above and beyond MSHA’s regulations with our lead-poisoning prevention program.  Why should we report cases of elevated blood-lead among our workers, when few other mine operators provide the same protection to their workers?  An “illness” report to MSHA might single us out for enforcement.  We are taking care of our workers, so this kind of “paperwork” requirement is unnecessary.
  2. Even under OSHA’s standard, a case of lead poisoning isn’t recordable on the OSHA Form 300 Log until a worker’s blood lead level is at the medical removal level of greater than 50 ug/dL.  Most of these mining-related lead poisonings were between 25-40 ug/dL, and therefore we weren’t obligated to report them.
  3. Yes, these blood lead levels were analyzed by the State of Alaska and they used the CDC’s level of concern for adult blood lead level (25 ug/dL) as their definition of lead poisoning.  But, technically, is a 25 ug/dL level an occupational “illness”?  Just because a worker has a blood-lead level above 25 ug/dL doesn’t necessarily mean the worker has any clinical symptoms of an illness.  As noted above, OSHA’s requirement for recording a case of lead poisoning is 50 ug/dL, not CDC’s level of 25 ug/dL.

The Anchorage Daily News’ Elizabeth Bluemink noted that “repeated calls and emails” to MSHA were not responded to in time for her story.  That’s unfortunate.  It seems like a worker health and safety agency like MSHA would be grateful to receive this kind of epidemiological data from the State of Alaska.  It may be the first sign of a larger problem for mine workers nationwide, and a matter that MSHA should want to investigate.  If cases of elevated blood lead levels are being identified in miners at operations where the employer has voluntarily implemented a lead-poisong prevention program, what about the miners working for less-responsible companies?

Elizabeth Bluemink’s reporting about lead-poisoning among Alaska miners reminds us how far behind we are in protecting miners from health hazards.  Recall: OSHA’s first lead standard was issued in 1978, and a standard to protect construction workers was issued (after a congressional mandate) in 1993.  Yet, there is no MSHA health standard to protect mine workers from lead poisoning.  This fact is particularly disturbing on the heels of MSHA’s announcement last week of a new exposure limit to protect mine workers from exposure to asbestos. (Read post here)   For years, MSHA’s exposure limit was 20 times less protective than the asbestos limit for workers in every other industry.  One of the troubling aspects of that announcement is that MSHA simply set a PEL (0.1 fiber/m3) but offers none of the ancillary provisions (e.g., medical surveillance, hygiene facilities) afforded workers in every other U.S. industry.  

So, for two of the most well-known and studied occupational health hazards —lead and asbestos—protection for U.S. mine workers lags far behind protection for other U.S. workers.  Moreover, health protection for all workers is less than it should be in the U.S.A. in the year 2008.  (For example, why is the CDC’s level of concern for adult lead poisoning 25 ug/dL, yet our federal standard doesn’t require lead-poisoning recording until a 50 ug/dL level is reached?) 

Let’s see which of our Presidential candidates wants to answer some questions in the coming months about these very real problems. 

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