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Working with lead – health effects, taking precautions and employer responsibilities

Written by: Fit for Work team | Posted in: Blog

working with leadWhen 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;
  • shipbuilding/shipbreaking;
  • 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:

  • constipation;
  • nausea;
  • memory and concentration problems;
  • metallic taste in the mouth
  • fatigue;
  • headaches;
  • weight loss;
  • stomach pain;
  • irritability.

If the lead absorption continues, this can cause more serious problems such as:

  • kidney disease;
  • brain or nerve damage;
  • infertility.

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). Those in Scotland can visit or call 0800 019 2211.


  1. agnes n gomana

    My daughter has been sick for two months last year april and may and she came out of hospital after that.
    The company paid her full salary until December 2015. January 2016 she went back to work until May 18 she was admitted again for 2 weeks and went back to work they wanted a letter that says she is fit for work and unfortunately she had an abcess in the nose and she stayed until the 1 of june already they deducted her salary for june saying she owes company days and they still continuing, end of july they did the same thing. I do not blame them for doing that but I still fill they should have discussed it with her before deducting money. My question is what can she do to get full salary again because she had two kids grade 4 and crèche. The medical bills are also kicking out as you; know not everything is covered by medical aid.

    I think you can advise me what to do?


    • Fit for Work team

      Dear Agnes,

      I’m sorry to hear about your daughter and her difficulties. Unfortunately, we are a UK based service and it looks like you are based outside of this? The rules for payment of sick pay and statutory sick pay vary between countries and I think you will need to check with a service equivalent to ours where you are based. I’m sorry we are unable to advise further.

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