Lead exposure is a common occupational hazard. Approximately 0.5-1.5 million workers are exposed to lead in the workplace each year.
But the dangers don’t stop there. Workers can unknowingly expose their family members to dust that clings to their skin or work clothes.
To prevent permanent health problems, employers and employees must follow all standard safety guidelines.
Below you will learn more about the hazard, how to stay safe when working with it, and what to do if you become sick after lead exposure. We also offer a full lead awareness training course if you want to take your education to a higher level.
Table of Contents
What Is Lead?
Lead is a natural element and a metal that is denser than most other materials. It often appears shiny blue or gray but becomes dull when it comes in contact with air. What makes this element so dangerous is its lack of taste or smell.
Which Common Materials Contain Lead?
- Construction materials
- Lead metal or alloy
- Ceramic items
Working with these items can put you at a higher risk of contact. However, old homes and other materials found in factories and construction sites can also be hazardous.
How to Identify Hazards at Work
Your employer is responsible for upholding federal and state regulations. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Lead Standard requires employers to follow specific guidelines to ensure workplace safety.
The law states that air lead levels must be no more than 30 micrograms per meter over eight hours.
Workers should be made aware when dealing with hazardous materials, including the level and length of time. They should also be encouraged to check product labels or talk to your boss about the hazards you are in contact with on the job.
What Is Lead Poisoning?
Lead poisoning is caused by exposure to high levels. Poisoning occurs when a detectable amount of the element is found in a blood test. When levels get too high, the health effects of lead can cause numerous permanent damage.
As stated, workers are not the only ones at risk. Family members or others who come in contact with contaminated materials from the job site can also be poisoned. As a result, following all safety guidelines is crucial. It’s also important to understand the routes of exposure to your body when dealing with lead, and we have a separate write-up on that.
Symptoms of Exposure
There are several health risks associated with lead exposure. Symptoms of lead exposure often occur slowly and can be delayed. As a result, you may be unaware you are experiencing being poisoned until weeks after exposure.
Individuals with mild poisoning may not show symptoms at all. However, high levels in adults or children can cause damage to the brain and nervous system.
See a doctor immediately if you believe you may have come in contact with lead and you or a family member experienced any of these health problems:
- Abdominal pain
- Joint pain
- Loss of appetite
- Increased blood pressure
- Memory loss
- Developmental delays
- Neurological changes
Who Is at the Greatest Risk?
As mentioned, lead is an occupational hazard. But exposure to lead can be reduced or eliminated by following the correct procedures. However, some employees cannot minimize their risk in the same way.
So, who is at the most significant risk?
Employees in the fields below are often at risk for exposure because of the materials they work with contain lead:
- Construction workers
- Auto mechanics
- Battery manufacturers
- Glass workers
- Lead manufacturers
- Plastic manufacturers
- Metal recyclers
How Does Lead Exposure Occur?
Lead typically enters the body through inhalation and ingestion. Individuals can unknowingly breathe in lead dust for fumes or ingest dust that has settled on drinks, food, cigarettes, or on their faces and hands.
Construction workers, miners, and others at risk of poisoning are most likely to breathe in lead fumes or dust.
On the other hand, workers can expose their family members, friends, and others when they return home. Dust can get into your vehicle, your home, and your clothes.
But you can keep yourself and others safe by following these procedures:
- Working in a well-ventilated area
- Talking to your boss about workplace safe practices
- Participating in medical surveillance and rotating tasks to keep blood test results low.
- Wearing PPE
- Using products to remove lead from the skin (soap and water alone are not enough)
- Keeping food and drinks away from surfaces that may be contaminated
- Showering and putting on clean clothes and shoes after working near lead
- Washing your clothes separately from others
Following these steps in the workplace and at home will protect workers and their loved ones. These steps are especially important for protecting children, who are also at significant risk of lead poisoning.
What Does Lead Dust Do to Your Body?
Once it has entered the body, it moves through the lungs and into the blood. Unfortunately, lead can build up in the body and stay there long. Poisoning can occur whether you are exposed for an extended period or repeatedly to the element in short bursts.
Whether you experience bodily harm or not depends on various factors, such as how much you were exposed to, for how long, and how you came in contact with the element.
Additionally, you must consider genetic factors, lifestyle, and overall health.
If you are exposed, lead can damage many of the body’s organ systems, including:
- Brain and nervous system
- Red blood cells
- Reproductive system
Exposure can also cause:
- Memory loss
- Sleep disturbances
- Joint pain
- Muscle pain
- Other serious health effects
Lead can also affect the fetus through the placenta of pregnant women, potentially causing congenital disabilities or miscarriage or an unborn child. And keep in mind that the effects of lead can damage fertility permanently.
The Importance of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Any bodily harm or health effects can be permanent. That’s why it’s essential to use protective work clothing and other safety precautions when exposure to lead is possible.
PPE for at-risk workers should include:
- Self-contained breathing apparatus with full facepiece
- Supplied air respirator
- Quarter mask respirators
- Protective clothing
A self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) with a full facepiece respirator is used in pressure-demand or positive pressure mode. However, workers can also use a supplied air respirator operated in pressure-demand or any other positive pressure mode in addition to another tight-fitting facepiece breathing apparatus.
Do not use compressed air to clean surfaces unless the workspace is properly ventilated or features air-purifying equipment. Otherwise, toxic materials will spread and contaminate other surfaces or blow onto other workers.
Remember that inorganic lead doesn’t typically enter the body through the skin. Instead, it enters the body through accidental ingestion through contaminated skin, clothing, or surfaces.
Inorganic lead is found in consumer products such as dust, paint, and soil. Although it is not as toxic as organic lead compounds, it’s still dangerous and should be handled carefully.
What are the hazards of lead in the workplace?
Depending on the level of contact, the element can cause adverse effects, including permanent mental or physical health issues. Major organ systems can be affected if particles are inhaled or ingested. In the worst cases, poisoning can be fatal.
What are the OSHA standards for lead?
OSHA requires employers to take established precautions to protect against exposure. Such standards include:
- Training workers on how to safely work with the element
- Provide medical surveillance to workers
- Providing hygiene facilities
- Provide blood lead testing to workers who are exposed
- Thoroughly clean up or dispose of surfaces and materials exposed to dust
- Local exhaust ventilation must be provided in workspaces to remove fumes
How do you detect lead exposure?
If high exposure is detected, see a doctor immediately. Your blood lead levels (BLL) should be tested to determine if you have been exposed.
Blood tests measure how much of the element is currently in your body. The standard blood level of an adult is less than five micrograms per deciliter of whole blood.
What method does OSHA recommend for monitoring lead exposure?
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Lead Standards for General Industry, medical surveillance and testing for blood lead levels must be available to employees working in air levels at or above the action level or permissible exposure limit.
According to the OSHA fact sheet, the action level is 30 micrograms per cubic meter of air for eight hours.
When air levels exceed the action level or permissible exposure level, employees must use approved PPE. Such protective clothing includes goggles, gloves, boots, and sometimes, an air-purifying respirator or a high-efficiency particulate filter. These items will keep employees safe for longer in areas where levels are above the action level.
Limiting contact overall is another way to minimize the inhalation or ingestion of lead particles. Engineering controls such as safety training, proper ventilation, and using safer materials make monitoring and controlling workplace contact easier.
Occupational exposure to lead requires safe work practices. When returning home, workers can unknowingly expose others when particles cling to their skin or clothing.
That’s why all employers and employees must follow the standard safety guidelines outlined in this guide.