The Labor Department gave both labor unions and industry partial victories yesterday, further tightening rules controlling worker exposure to lead while granting some of the nation's largest lead smelters temporary exemptions from the new requirements.
The requirements, first issued by the Carter administration, had been held up when President Reagan took office and were further postponed last month.
Owners of companies that refine lead from raw ore or from scrap metal had asked for a one-year stay in the effective date of the new, tougher provisions of the lead standard, while labor unions had argued that such a stay would amount to an illegal amendment of the existing rule. That rule provides a timetable for gradually increasing the standards of worker protection.
Yesterday's action "is going to please everybody," said Michael Volpe, an aide to Thorne Auchter, head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
While that evaluation may be excessively optimistic, the action did prompt expressions of relief from labor union safety experts, who had feared that the Reagan administration's opposition to costly regulations would prompt OSHA's rulemakers to grant all the requests the lead smelters had made.
OSHA's lead standard, designed to protect industrial workers against lead poisoning, has been one of the agency's most controversial requirements, prompting a lawsuit and threats of more litigation from the industries and labor unions affected.
Lead, one of industry's most commonly used raw materials and a vital component of many manufacturing process, is also a potent poison when swallowed or inhaled in sufficient amounts.
Yesterday's action involves only one section of the overall standard, and covers up to 7,500 -- or less than 1 percent -- of the approximately 800,000 industrial workers exposed to lead on the job.
The decision generally puts into effect higher standards of medical protection for workers, dropping the level of blood lead concentration that will force a company to remove a worker from a job in an area of high lead exposure. But since the three largest primary lead smelters are covered by the interim exemptions, many workers will not be covered.
Industry spokesman yesterday hedged when asked their reactions to the decision, but labor union safety experts generally expressed relief.
"This indicates that [OSHA] will call the close ones in industry's favor, but there is some interest left in the agency . . . in enforcing safety and health regulations," said Jim English, associate general counsel of the United Steelworkers of America.
"We were disappointed because we felt they should have granted a stay," said a spokesman for the Lead Industries Association. "But we're pleased they granted the exemptions they did."
Last month, the Supreme Court let stand a lower-court decision upholding all the major points of the standard OSHA's new leaders are reviewing the standard's provisions and plan to decide later this year whether any charges need to be made.
When Auchter took over the agency earlier this year, he said he would like to subject OSHA's major regulations covering benzene, lead, industrial noise and hazardous wastes to a cost/benefit analysis, weighing whether the level of safeguards provided for workers' health and safety were worth the often massive costs associated with redesigning or altering machinery in large industrial plants.
However, in the wake of the Supreme Court dicision that frowned on that approach to regulation, Auchter has said he would first determine the economic feasibility of rules like the lead standard and then look for the most efficient way industries could meet OSHA's standards.
In the case of lead, this final analysis could mean that, instead of requiring industries to install filters, hoods or other expensive equipment to control the levels of airborne lead, OSHA could allow industry to comply by requiring that workers wear respirators, thus controlling their lead intake at a far lower cost to their employers.
Yesterday's "action is one of the more considered things they've done in the health standard area," said Peg Seminario, industrial hygienist for the AFL-CIO. "They've given some thought to the various aspects and attempted to deal with the problem. This doesn't appear to be a knee-jerk political response."