NSW lead WHS regulations amended to meet model laws
Blood lead thresholds and the definition of “lead risk work” have changed under updated Work Health and Safety (WHS) regulations, according to SafeWork New South Wales (SafeWork NSW).
The 1 July amendments to NSW WHS regulations saw changes to blood lead levels that determine frequency of biological monitoring, when workers need to be removed from lead risk work and when they can return. The amendments have a two-year transitional period — coming into effect from 1 July 2021 — and bring the state’s laws in line with the model WHS laws, which were updated last year. Under the new regulations, lead risk work is defined as work that may cause a worker’s blood lead levels to exceed 5 µg/dL for a female of reproductive capacity or 20 µg/dL for all others.
“Because these levels are lower the threshold levels at which an employer must conduct biological monitoring of workers who carry out lead risk work has also reduced,” SafeWork NSW Director of Hazardous Chemicals Meagan McCool said. “Previously, for example, biological monitoring for females not of reproductive capacity and males had frequency thresholds set at less than 30 μg/dL, between 30–40 μg/dL and over 40 μg/dL. Under the new laws this changes to less than 10 μg/dL, between 10–20 μg/dL and over 20 μg/dL.”
Additionally, females who are of reproductive capacity, pregnant or breastfeeding must be removed from work when their lead blood level reaches 10 μg/dL and can return once levels are under 5 µg/dL, while all other workers must be removed at 30 μg/dL and can return once levels fall below 20 µg/dL.
The changes reflect research reviewed by Safe Work Australia (SWA) which suggests that the previous blood lead work removal level of 15 µg/dL for pregnant or breastfeeding females does not sufficiently protect children from lead toxicity. According to the research, lead, which accumulates in bone, can be remobilised during pregnancy and be transferred to the developing foetus — where low-level lead exposure can impair the learning capacity and neuropsychological development of a foetus or developing child. While the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia (NHMRC) concluded that it is not possible to definitively determine a “safe level” or “level of concern” for lead, it recommended all Australians should have a lead blood level below 10 µg/dL.
Furthermore, most health effects observed with occupational lead exposure — including effects on the nervous system, increased blood pressure, heart rate variability, kidney dysfunction, changes in immune system markers, reduced sperm quality and haematological changes — have been associated with worker lead blood levels >20 µg/dL, with most studies reporting associations starting at a cohort mean of around 25–30 µg/dL. As a result, SWA stated that 20 µg/dL is a “pragmatic NOAEL (No Observed Adverse Effect Level) for workers and can be rationally argued as a precautionary BLRL (Blood Lead Removal Level)”.
Lead risk work is carried out in various industries such as shipbuilding, manufacturing and demolition, according to SafeWork NSW. Anyone working with lead must determine whether it counts as lead risk work. In cases where workers are carrying out lead risk work or are not sure, they must notify SafeWork NSW at least seven days before work begins. SafeWork NSW must also be notified if a worker needs to be removed from working with lead.
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