When a person’s job involves doing activities that produce lead dust, fumes or vapour, lead absorption is a risk. Lead can be absorbed by:
- breathing in lead dust, fume or vapour
- swallowing lead by drinking, eating, smoking or nail biting after lead exposure (particularly if hands have not been washed).
Once lead has been absorbed by the body, it circulates in the blood and accumulates in the bones. It can stay there for many years without causing any problems, but can also cause a range of health issues.
Activities that may involve coming into contact with lead
Activities that most commonly involve coming into contact with lead include:
- lead smelting, melting and burning;
- vitreous enamelling on glass and metal;
- glazing pottery;
- the manufacture of lead compounds such as red and white lead and lead colours;
- manufacture of leaded glass and rubber;
- painting and spray painting of some vehicles;
- paint stripping from old buildings, doors and windows;
- plumbing and soldering operations.
The health effects of working with lead
Lead absorption can have several health consequences, which vary in severity. These symptoms include:
- memory and concentration problems;
- metallic taste in the mouth
- weight loss;
- stomach pain;
If the lead absorption continues, this can cause more serious problems such as:
- kidney disease;
- brain or nerve damage;
Lead absorption is also particularly dangerous for pregnant women as lead can pass the placental barrier from the mother to the unborn child, and can poison the foetus before birth. Women who are pregnant should not be exposed to high amounts of lead and women of childbearing age should exercise particular caution and a high standard of personal hygiene when working with lead. Though a pregnant worker’s risk assessment should support managers to address the risks, many of these measures should already be considered so that ladies who may become pregnant are protected.
Protecting yourself from lead absorption
Your employer has a responsibility to protect you from lead exposure. However, you should also take steps to protect yourself.
- Use all provided equipment, following instructions for use.
- Report any damaged or defective equipment to your employer.
- Wear the correct PPE and return it at the end of the day as instructed by your employer.
- Keep your work area clean and tidy.
- Clear up and dispose of lead waste at end of day as per your employer’s instructions.
- Wash your hands and face and scrub your nails before eating, drinking or smoking. Avoid biting your nails.
- Only eat and drink in designated areas.
- Wash and change before you go home if necessary.
- Do not take home any PPE for washing/cleaning.
- Make sure you have the correct training and information in order to work safely. You should also be aware of emergency procedures, such as what to do if there is a sudden release of lead dust.
- Make sure your workmates know and understand the dangers of lead exposure.
You should also ensure you attend any medical appointments arranged by your employer as biological monitoring can help to ensure you that you are not exposed to harmful amounts of lead.
How employers should protect their workers from lead exposure
Employers are responsible for the safety of their staff. The Control of Lead at Work Regulations (2002) states that it is the duty of employers to prevent or control employee exposure to lead.
If you are an employer who has employees who work with lead, you should:
- carry out regular risk assessments to assess the levels of lead in the workplace;
- put in place controls and systems to prevent and control lead exposure e.g. a dust extractor;
- maintain all equipment;
- provide washing and changing facilities;
- provide a lead-free area for eating and drinking;
- tell your staff about lead exposure, the potential health risks and what steps they can take to limit their exposure/risk;
- ensure that staff are properly trained and know how to use equipment, and PPE;
- keep good records;
- assess the requirement for biological monitoring under the supervision of a HSE appointed doctor – this can also help you to be sure that staff are not exposed to harmful levels of lead
- seek expert help if you are in doubt.
What employers should do if lead exposure is significant
If the exposure to lead in the workplace is significant, you should:
- make arrangements for laundering clothing;
- measure the levels of lead in the air and inform employees of this. If the levels of lead cannot be kept below a certain level, you should provide employees with respiratory protective equipment;
- measure the level of lead in employees’ bodies via a blood test done by a doctor. Inform employees of their results. This is part of occupational health surveillance.
As a result of blood tests, action may need to be taken. The type of action taken depends on the levels of lead in the blood. Guidance in this area refers to:
- ‘action’ levels: once blood lead levels reach the action levels, employers must investigate and try to reduce lead exposure;
- ‘suspension’ levels: if levels reach the suspension level despite control measures, doctors will usually decide against continued work with lead. An employer must act on a doctor’s decision, and employees will not be able to work with lead again until it is safe to do so.
The table below outlines the ‘action’ and ‘suspension’ levels for working with lead.
|Category||Action level||Suspension level|
|General employees||50 ug/dl||60 ug/dl|
|Women of child-bearing age||25 ug/dl||30 ug/dl|
|Under 18s||40 ug/dl||50 ug/dl|
For more advice on working with lead, call the Fit for Work advice line on 0800 032 6235 (0800 032 6233 for advice in Welsh). If you have been off work for four weeks or more, ask your GP or employer for a referral to Fit for Work.
If you are an employer and wish to refer an employee to Fit for Work, visit fitforwork.org/employer and click ‘refer an employee’
GPs can refer by going to fitforwork.org/general-practitioner and clicking ‘refer a patient’.
Those in Scotland can visit fitforworkscotland.scot or call 0800 019 2211.