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November 11, 2009

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HSE accused of complacency on lead exposure

UK limits on exposure to lead are too lax and could be putting tens of

thousands of workers at risk of serious health problems, yet the HSE is

ignoring expert advice, a new report has warned.

Unpublished HSE figures obtained by Hazards magazine, edited by University of Stirling professor Rory O’Neill, reveal that around 5000 workers, known to have blood lead levels below the UK’s recommended action level — 50 microgrammes of lead per 100ml of blood for men; 25µg/100ml for women — but above 10µg/100ml, could be suffering serious ill-health effects from exposure to lead.

The report points to an abundance of supporting research, including a report published in March his year by a health research centre at the University of California at Berkeley, which warned that blood levels of lead less than 20µg/100ml can cause hypertension, a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, chronic kidney damage, and impaired kidney and brain function.

The HSE figures, which give a breakdown of blood lead levels for all those under medical surveillance, apparently indicate that more than 5000 workers in 2007/08 had blood lead levels above 10µg/100ml, of whom roughly 3200 had levels in excess of 20µg/100ml. Just shy of 700 had exposures in excess of 40µg/100ml. All had levels of lead, which, according to the US report, made them at risk of permanent health damage.

According to O’Neill, the HSE recently told Hazards “there is no intention to review the lead standard at this point in time”. However, a series of meetings of the Executive’s Advisory Committee on Toxic Substances (ACTS) and the Working Group on Action to Control Chemicals (WATCH) in 2007 and 2008, revealed the need and desire for such an assessment. Following the presentation of a paper on the topic at a WATCH meeting in October last year, the chair noted: “WATCH had recommended that the UK standard for lead should be revisited.”

The HSE’s ‘Lead and you’ guide claims: “Serious health problems rarely occur unless people have at least 100 microgrammes of lead per decilitre of blood.” However, since the investigation by Hazards, and subsequent media interest from Channel 4 News, the guidance has been removed from its website.

Explained an HSE spokesperson: “The leaflet ‘Lead and you’ was due a periodic review that has now begun, and this will take into account the latest scientific developments and the language used to be clear about risks. The leaflet will then be republished and will also be available free online on the HSE website.”

Responding to the call for tighter standards on lead, the spokesperson commented: “HSE’s regulations and statutory guidance on lead exposure are both in line with the wider EU regulatory framework. As with all hazardous substances, we look to take into account new evidence in framing regulations, guidance to employers, and advice to workers so that proper protections are in place.

“When appropriate, we will also undertake research, as we have done with blood lead levels. This will continue to be the case. We do not have evidence that there is a widespread problem of employers failing in their duty to protect workers from exposure to lead, including by arranging medical check-ups.”

Approaches to managing the risks associated Musculoskeletal disorders

In this episode of the Safety & Health Podcast, we hear from Matt Birtles, Principal Ergonomics Consultant at HSE’s Science and Research Centre, about the different approaches to managing the risks associated with Musculoskeletal disorders.

Matt, an ergonomics and human factors expert, shares his thoughts on why MSDs are important, the various prevalent rates across the UK, what you can do within your own organisation and the Risk Management process surrounding MSD’s.

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