Lead is a soft malleable metal. In its original state is has a bluish-white color, however, when exposed to air it tarnishes to a dull grey color. Lead is used in the construction industry, also in batteries, pewters and solders. It can also be used as a radiation shield. Precautions must be taken when working with lead as it is toxic. It can endanger animals and humans if ingested. It can attack the nervous system and cause brain disorders. High temperature lead work (500+ degrees celcius), spraying of lead paint and abrasion can all contribute to exposing the worker the fumes and dust.
Lead can get into the body in different ways. Lead that is processed or worked on can produce dust and fumes. It can be breathed in directly from the air or swallowed, if handling lead products and not washing one’s hands. Lead, apart from alkyls and lead naphthenate, is not absorbed through the skin. Small amounts of lead are naturally released from the body through bowel movements, however if there is an excessive amount of lead in the blood it can cause complications. These include headaches, kidney damage, nerve and brain damage, nausea and infertility.
If one is working in an environment where there is exposure to lead, precautions and protective measures must be set in place to protect employees. It should first be assessed by the employer whether one’s health is at risk. Controls such as fume and dust extraction systems should be set in place within the work area. The occupational exposure limit for lead in the work area is 50 µg/dl for general employees. Lead levels in expectant women should be at a very low level, as this can affect the unborn fetus. The occupational exposure limit for lead in the work area where there is expectant mothers is 25 µg/dl. The air should frequently be monitored for lead levels. Washing facilities and eating areas must be placed so they are free from lead contamination. There must be separate showering and changing facilities from the main work areas. The employer should train the operatives on the correct use of equipment and on the wearing of personal protective equipment. Respiratory breathing equipment may need to be used in areas where there is significan exposure and employees’ blood tested periodically for lead levels. If the lead level in the blood of an employee becomes too high, the control measures must be reviewed to see what is not working to protect the employee. New training may have to be carried out and health care professionals consulted.
The law safeguards employees under the Control of Lead at Work Regulations 2002. These regulations apply to any type of work activity ie handling, processing, repairing, etc. There is a duty on the employer to control the amount of lead that employees are exposed to. Part of the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 stipulates that a high standard of personal hygiene in working areas can limit the amount of lead absorption. Employees must consult safety representatives under the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977.