The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Wednesday accused a brass-manufacturing company in Paramount of repeatedly exposing workers to dangerously high levels of lead and recommended that the company be fined $202,900, the highest penalty the agency has proposed since it began to operate in California 15 months ago.
“Our investigation indicates a blatant disregard” by Federated Metals “for the well-being of its employees,” said Frank Strasheim, OSHA’s regional administrator in San Francisco. Strasheim said the Federated case was part of a disturbing, wider pattern of lead problems in California.
“I’m surprised at the severity of the lead-exposure cases we are finding in California, especially in the long-established firms,” Strasheim said. “The cases seem to be much more severe than what I’ve seen in other parts of the country.”
Overexposure to lead can cause damage to the kidneys, the nervous system and the reproductive organs, leading to spontaneous abortions in women and diminished sperm counts in men. It also causes anemia, gastrointestinal problems and memory loss, according to Neil Mazlish, an epidemiologist with the state Health Department’s lead registry.
Mazlish also said there was disturbing evidence of lead problems among California workers. He said that since January, 1987, the state’s lead registry, which gathers information from medical laboratories, had found excessively high concentrations of lead in 7,000 workers.
Mazlish said that about 250,000 California workers have direct exposures to lead and that the registry saw reports on only a fraction of them. “We think we’re seeing the tip of an iceberg.”
The state Health Department first alerted OSHA to problems at Federated Metals last April, when it discovered that three employees of the company with excess lead levels in the blood were not being given adequate medical surveillance. When the level of lead in a worker’s blood reaches a certain level, the worker is supposed to be tested frequently to make sure the level is decreasing. At a certain level, the worker is supposed to be removed from his job.
Federated Metals, with parent offices in Altoona, Pa., has about 60 employees and manufactures brass ingots.
Officials at Federated Metals declined to return calls seeking comment. The company has 15 working days to accept the penalties or file an appeal.
Wednesday’s citations asserted that:
- The company failed to provide medical examinations to five employees with excessively high lead blood levels, despite the recommendations of a company physician.
- Told a physician examining employees at the plant that the level of lead there did not exceed federal exposure limits when, in fact, it was 30 times higher.
- Failed to remove four employees with high levels of lead in their blood from work in areas of high exposure.
- Failed to put proper safety guards on equipment.
Wednesday’s citations followed ones issued Aug. 18, with proposed penalties of $14,160. The company is contesting those citations.
Mazlish said he was “pleased” with Wednesday’s action, but added that he believed the agency waited too long to act. “This place was out of control,” he said.
A Labor Department source said he thought there had been a delay in issuing the second set of citations because their severity required approval from officials in Washington.