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A Tampa lead factory hurt workers. Here’s how to avoid a repeat.

Experts say the solutions could include adding new reporting requirements and increasing the frequency of inspections.
Experts say regulators could take steps to protect workers from the kinds of issues they faced at Gopher Resource.
Experts say regulators could take steps to protect workers from the kinds of issues they faced at Gopher Resource. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Dec. 24, 2021

Over the past year, the Tampa Bay Times found unsafe conditions inside and outside of Gopher Resource’s Tampa lead factory.

Workers were exposed to dangerously high levels of lead in the air. A company doctor failed to warn them of their risk. Government regulators missed opportunities to intervene. And the factory polluted the surrounding community.

Since the Times stories published, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration conducted a sweeping inspection of the plant and issued a six-figure fine.

Here are five things experts say regulators could do to help prevent similar situations in the future.

1. Require companies to report data about worker exposure levels

Under OSHA’s rules, companies must measure the amount of lead in the air and test workers’ blood for the metal.

None of that data, however, is reported to OSHA.

“It allows employers to hide all these hazards and sort of play a game of ‘catch me if you can,’ ” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former senior OSHA official.

Berkowitz said companies should be required to report chemical exposure data, including air-lead concentrations or worker blood-lead levels, particularly if they surpass a certain threshold deemed concerning by the agency.

At Gopher, air-lead levels regularly were dozens and hundreds of times the federal limit.

States, including Florida, could also consider legislation that requires their health departments to report blood-lead levels that reach a certain threshold to OSHA.

Laws like that, Berkowitz said, would help OSHA identify the most dangerous work environments and deploy inspectors.

That’s what’s happening in California. A new law there requires workplace regulators to investigate within three days whenever health department officials report a worker with more than 20 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood.

2. Lower the amount of lead allowed in workers’ blood

OSHA set its current blood-lead limit — test results exceeding 60 micrograms per deciliter — in 1978. Once workers hit that level, they must be reassigned to another position where they won’t be exposed any further.

Medical experts have called that limit “wholly inadequate,” “unacceptable,” “way too high,” “an anachronism” and “crazy.”

By comparison, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers any blood-lead level above 5 micrograms per deciliter to be elevated.

“The overarching message is that scientists have said this stuff is toxic, even at much lower levels of exposure than the OSHA standard allows,” said Dr. Howard Hu, a physician and expert in adult lead exposure at the University of Southern California.

Exposure to lead has been linked to high blood pressure, kidney dysfunction, cardiovascular disease and neurological problems.

Experts also noted that OSHA doesn’t take into account lead’s cumulative effects at lower levels. The metal sticks around in the body and settles into bone.

That means even workers who have never reached OSHA’s limit could wind up with huge cumulative exposures over their careers.

The state of Michigan and the U.S. Department of Defense have set lower limits for workers and military members. But OSHA has made no changes in 43 years.

Medical experts say OSHA’s standard leaves workers at risk. The American Public Health Association recently called on OSHA to update its rules, citing the harm chronicled in our stories.

OSHA acknowledges its levels are outdated. The agency has had reviewing its blood-lead limit on its agenda for five years.

A Labor Department spokesperson said OSHA is in the early stages of rulemaking.

3. Provide more oversight of industry medical services

During inspections at Gopher, OSHA didn’t check whether the company or its doctor was following certain rules to keep workers safe.

For example, we found that Dr. Bruce Bohnker didn’t provide additional tests and exams for certain workers who were exposed to the carcinogen cadmium and had shown signs of possible kidney damage. (Bohnker did not reply to repeated requests for comment on the subject.) The requirement is outlined in OSHA rules. But the agency’s inspection reports provide no indication that regulators considered cadmium exposure during their visits.

That meant no one — neither OSHA nor the state’s board of medicine — was checking to see whether workers were getting the care they were supposed to receive.

Dr. Melissa McDiarmid, a former chief medical officer for OSHA, said the agency lost a substantial number of experienced officers who were skilled at spotting problems. Still, inspectors should have closely examined the plant’s medical testing and sought help to understand whether violations were present, she said.

4. Increase the frequency and rigor of inspections

Before we published our initial investigation in March, OSHA hadn’t visited the factory in five years. And when OSHA had inspected Gopher, regulators made critical errors.

OSHA is a small agency tasked with regulating millions of workplaces across the country, everything from grocery stores to lead smelters like Gopher. Here in Florida, OSHA has about 75 employees to oversee thousands of businesses.

Jordan Barab, who served as deputy assistant secretary for the agency, said increasing the number of inspectors should be a top priority.

“OSHA needs some more funding to be able to staff up and have more inspectors to get to more workplaces,” he said.

OSHA leaders have said the agency is understaffed and underfunded, citing a statistic that it would take 160 years to inspect every workplace in America.

As for problems with thoroughness and accuracy in OSHA’s inspections, Barab said the agency has an internal auditing process that it should use to ensure it is hitting the right workplaces and inspections are high quality.

5. Monitor facilities’ emissions on a random schedule

For years, the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission tested the amount of lead in the community air around Gopher’s Tampa plant on a six-day schedule set months in advance.

Our investigation showed that Gopher knew exactly when the government’s air monitors would be running and took steps to lower its pollution on those days.

Gopher has said it follows all federal and state regulations and has acted “with integrity” in its dealings with regulatory agencies. But pollution experts told us that testing on a set schedule advertised ahead of time could enable a company to manipulate its emission levels.

After our story was published in December, the county announced that it would double the number of air samples taken around the factory and begin adding random testing days.

Air pollution experts said that’s how regulators should be testing so companies can’t game the system. They said the agencies should also consider whether continuous monitoring — using devices that never switch off — could be viable.

But most importantly, said William Landing, an environmental chemist at Florida State University, they should follow one rule: “Don’t tell the company when you’re sampling.”

This story is part of a collaboration with FRONTLINE, the PBS series, through its Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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