Working Safely with Lead

By Roy Maurer Apr 3, 2014

Lead is one of the most common overexposure hazards and a leading cause of workplace illness, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which has made reducing lead exposure a high priority.

Lead is an ingredient in thousands of widely used products one may encounter on a jobsite, including lead-based paints, lead solder, electrical fittings and conduits, tank linings, plumbing fixtures, and many metal alloys. Many uses of lead have been banned in the United States; however, lead-based paints continue to be used on bridges, railways, ships and other steel structures because of the paints’ rust- and corrosion-inhibiting properties, according to OSHA. Also, many older homes were painted with lead-based paints. Significant lead exposures can occur when paint is removed during renovation, repair or demolition work.

Operations of this kind can generate dangerous airborne concentrations of lead, which, if inhaled or ingested, can impair health after periods of exposure as short as days. The frequency and severity of medical symptoms increase with the concentration of lead in the blood. Common symptoms of acute lead poisoning are loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, constipation, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, moodiness, headache, joint or muscle aches, anemia, and decreased sexual drive. Acute health poisoning from uncontrolled occupational exposures has resulted in fatalities. Long-term overexposure to lead may result in severe damage to the blood-forming, nervous, urinary and reproductive systems.

“Employers of workers engaged in the repair, renovation, removal, demolition, and salvage of damaged structures and materials are responsible for the development and implementation of a worker protection program essential to minimize worker risk of lead exposure,” OSHA said.

Standards and Requirements to Protect Workers

OSHA has regulations to protect workers from lead hazards and require employers with workplaces or operations covered by the standard to do the following:

  • Ensure that workers are not exposed to lead at concentrations greater than 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air averaged over an eight-hour period.
  • Protect employees during the initial exposure assessment with the appropriate respiratory protection, personal protective clothing and equipment, change areas, hand-washing facilities, biological monitoring, and hazard communication and safety training.
  • Notify workers no later than five working days after the receipt of exposure assessment results, either individually in writing or by posting the results in an accessible location.
  • Establish and implement a written compliance plan, including a description of each activity in which lead is emitted; air-monitoring data that documents the source of lead emissions; and a description of the specific means and schedule that will be employed to achieve compliance, including an arrangement among contractors on multi-contractor sites.
  • Use engineering controls and work practices, where feasible, to reduce worker exposure.
  • Provide respirators when engineering and work practice controls are not sufficient to reduce employee exposures to or below the permissible exposure limit, or when an employee requests one.
  • Provide workers with clean protective clothing and equipment at no cost, and repair and replace it as needed.
  • Require that employees observe good personal hygiene practices, such as washing hands before eating and showering before leaving the worksite.
  • Enroll employees exposed to high levels of lead in a medical surveillance program.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy


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