Lead Hazards in the Workplace

Lead Caution Safety Sign

The hazards of lead are well known, so people may assume exposures to this dangerous metal have been reduced. To a certain extent to this true; lead levels in the general population have decreased since the 1970s. In some workplaces, though, lead continues to be a serious problem.

The Seattle Times recently published a series of investigative articles about lead poisoning at shooting ranges across the country and found that workers and in some cases patrons have experienced severe health problems related to lead poisoning.

At one gun range in Bellevue, Wash., members of a construction crew were exposed to lead dust in 2012 while performing a renovation on part of the building. The lead dust came from spent ammunition, and the workers were not adequately protected from or educated about this dust. They breathed in the lead while performing their work and then tracked the lead home, exposing their families.

Health Effects of Lead

Lead, a heavy metal that naturally occurs in the Earth’s crust and is used in products ranging from pipes and radiation shielding to ammunition and fishing weights, is highly toxic to humans.

Those exposed to lead typically inhale it or ingest it (often by not washing their hands after exposure). Once in the body, the lead causes many types of harm resulting in stomach pain, anxiety, headaches and irritability, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

If the level of exposure is high enough or if the exposure persists over time, high levels of lead in the blood can lead to impaired kidney function, damage to the nervous system, high blood pressure, poor cognitive function, anemia and reproductive problems, OSHA explains. Brain development in children can be impaired by lead, so workers who unknowingly carry lead home from the workplace can cause serious problems for their families. Women who are pregnant or plan to have children can even pass the lead to their unborn babies.

Occupational Lead Exposure

A shooting range might seem like an unusual place to experience lead poisoning, but the incidents investigated by The Seattle Times call attention to the fact that lead is often an unseen hazard. For many years lead was used in products like paint, gasoline and building materials. Its use in common items like household paint has been banned, but plenty of lead-based paints still exist in older structures.

Lead Hazards
Demolition and renovation work can often expose workers to lead. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Joe Mabel

Workers involved in painting and building renovations often face lead hazards, as do workers who do radiator repair, bridge work, demolition, battery manufacturing, metal production, plumbing and recycling, OSHA says.

Employers are required to abate lead hazards in the workplace under OSHA standard 29 CFR 1910.1025 (general industry) and 29 CFR 1926.62 (construction). These standards state that an employee cannot be exposed to lead concentrations greater than 50 micrograms per cubic meter (50 ug/m3) averaged over an 8-hour period. While the permissible exposure limit is 50 ug/m3, OSHA also designates an action level; at 30 ug/m3 employers must take steps to monitor their employees and lead levels.

At certain blood lead levels (BLL), employees will need to be removed from work.

Lead Hazards
Photo: NIOSH

Engineering controls should be used to reduce lead exposures in the workplace. Local exhaust ventilation is important for keeping lead dust in the air from becoming a problem. At many of the shooting ranges The Seattle Times investigated, ventilation was a big issue. Additional engineering controls involve isolating processes that use lead (such as processes used in lead-acid battery manufacturing) and automating processes so employees touch fewer materials that contain lead.

Administrative and work practice controls such as using appropriate housekeeping measures and implementing procedures for changing clothes and showering before leaving the workplace can also be used.

In many work situations such as renovation or demolition work, respiratory protection and other forms of PPE will also be necessary.

Even at relatively low BLLs, lead can cause serious problems, especially for pregnant women and children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that health problems can begin to occur at a BLL of 10 micrograms per deciliter.

Consider this: The average person has a BLL of 1.2 micrograms per deciliter. Some workers at the shooting range in Bellevue had recorded BLLs as high as 70 times that, which can be deadly and often requires chelation, a somewhat risky process of removing metals from the body. Recommended treatments for BLLs are available from the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists.

Employers should also remember that at low levels, workers might not notice any symptoms of lead poisoning. This can be especially problematic because over time lead can do damage to the body without the exposed person noticing. If you know lead is present in the workplace, developing ways of monitoring exposures and employee health is important. Employees need to know that lead is present, what is being done about it and what they as individuals can do to stay safe. Provide sufficient training about lead hazards.

Hygiene for Working Around Lead

Workers should follow all instructions from their employers about reducing lead exposures. This includes wearing required PPE and performing housekeeping tasks appropriately. To avoid ingesting lead or carrying it home, workers should also do the following:

  • Wash hands and shower at the end of shifts
  • Change clothes and shoes before going home
  • Carry work clothes home in a plastic bag and wash them separately (use an extra rinse cycle)
  • Inform their doctors they work with lead

For more information about workplace lead exposure, visit OSHA’s website.

Additional Resources