Date ArticleType
8/25/2017 Safety Flash
Reducing Worker Exposure to Lead

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Reducing Worker Exposure to Lead


Exposure to lead can cause serious health hazards for workers. Short-term overexposure, while less common, can cause damage to the brain that develops into seizures or even cardiorespiratory arrest. Long-term overexposure can damage the central nervous system, blood, urinary and reproductive systems.

A Blood Lead Level (BLL) of 10 is associated with impaired kidney function, high blood pressure, nervous system and neurobehavioral effects later in life. With a BLL above 40, workers experience headache, fatigue, sleep disturbance, joint pain, myalgia, anorexia, and constipation.

According to OSHA’s Lead in Construction publication, “Lead is used frequently for roofs, cornices, tank linings, and electrical conduits.” Workers who are most at risk include those involved with iron work; rivet busting; welding, cutting and burning on steel structures; demolition; or removing paint from surfaces previously coated with lead-based paint such as bridges.

“One of the greatest dangers we deal with in the industry in regards to lead is welding steel which has been painted with a lead based paint,” says David Schulz, President, Schulz Iron Works Inc., Raleigh, N.C.

He adds: Renovation jobs are particularly prone to lead paint exposure. It’s a good idea to confirm the age of the building prior to bidding the project. If work will be performed in an area that was painted prior to 1980, inform and educate your crews and take precautions to prevent exposure.

A key issue is the heat, which raises the risk of the workers breathing in the lead.  Lead is hazardous if swallowed, it can contaminate your skin or clothes and find its way into food, drinks, cigarettes, or anything that comes in contact with your mouth. 

Employers are responsible for implementing worker protection programs that assess the hazard and monitors the hazard, provide job-specific compliance programs, includes proper protective equipment, training, and documentation.
Major Elements of OSHA’s Lead Standard:

  • Requires that employers use engineering controls and work practices, where feasible, to reduce worker exposure.
  • Requires that employees observe good personal hygiene practices, such as washing hands before eating and taking a shower before leaving the worksite (when/if feasible).
  • Requires that employees be provided with protective clothing and, where necessary, with respiratory protection accordance with 20 CFR 1910.134.
  • Requires that employees exposed to high levels of lead be enrolled in a medical surveillance program.

Best Practices

Hire a third-party company or lead hazard safety engineer to test the work area to make sure it has been properly abated.

Screen workers before sending them into an area where they have the risk of coming in contact with lead. Then after the job, rescreen your workers to confirm they didn’t get exposed to dangerous level. It’s also a good idea to test workers once a year to ensure that you have a baseline for lead exposure. This information can also help identify if a worker is exposed to lead in a non-work environment, such as at home.

Provide tools for on-site monitoring, such as Instant Lead Testing Swabs PB-2M161.

Use personal, wearable air quality monitors, on crewmembers. Schulz Iron Works Inc. attaches a monitor on 1 out of every 10 employees working in an area with known lead hazard. This records true lead levels in the abatement area and provides daily records.
Provide disposable protective clothing, respirators, or other equipment, as needed.


OSHA Overview on Lead Standards, Health Effects, Evaluating Exposure and Controls, etc.

OSHA Fact Sheet on Protecting Workers from Lead Hazards

OSHA Lead in Construction with explanation of Employer Responsibilities and Exposure Reduction/Protection

Help educate others and prevent injuries

This Safety Flash was contributed by David Schulz, Schulz Iron Works Inc., in cooperation with SEAA’s Safety Committee. It is designed to keep members informed about ongoing safety issues and to provide suggestions for reducing risk. Best practices are gathered from a variety of sources. They may be more or less stringent than individual corporate policies, and are not intended to be an official recommendation from SEAA. Always get approval and direction from your company officers on any new practice or procedure as these best practices may not work for all situations.

Everyone benefits when a worker avoids injury.

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