- Identify the characteristics of lead and sources of lead exposure.
- Recognize the potential health effects from exposure to lead, including the symptoms of lead poisoning.
- Recognize your employer’s responsibility to minimize your exposure to lead by determining workplace hazards, implementing work practice controls, and implementing a medical surveillance program.
- Recognize your responsibility to limit your exposure to lead by wearing required PPE, including respiratory protection.
- Identify good hygiene practices to keep you safe from lead exposure.
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According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, despite improvements in public health policies and substantial reductions in blood lead levels (BLLs) in adults, lead exposure remains an important health problem worldwide. Approximately 95% of all elevated blood lead levels reported among adults in the United States are work-related.
Even a little lead poisoning can cause serious health problems, and at very high levels, it can be fatal.
Lead is a heavy, soft, gray-blue metallic element found in the earth’s crust. Most occupational exposure to lead comes from activities like mining, smelting, manufacturing, and through the use and work with manufactured products containing lead. But lead is perhaps most commonly associated with paint and painting as a historically important ingredient until the negative effects of lead paint became known, resulting in the banning of its use in the industry, and the rise of safer alternatives like latex. In use up until about the late 1970’s, lead paint remains a common hazard for those working in the demolition, renovation, and general construction industries, though exposure to lead paint is a diminishing risk.
Lead poisoning can damage the brain, liver, kidneys, and red blood cells. It can also damage bones and cartilage, and harm the reproductive system. When skin and eyes come in contact with lead dust, irritation can occur. Lead can enter the body by ingestion or inhalation. It can be ingested by eating lead contaminated foods and drinking water that has passed through older lead pipes. It can also be inhaled by breathing air containing lead dust or particles of lead such as fumes from heated lead.
The permissible exposure limit (PEL) for airborne lead, that’s the amount of lead exposure the average person can safely endure, is 50 micrograms of lead per cubic meter of air averaged over an 8-hour work-day. Maintaining the lead exposure level below this number is a preventive measure to protect workers from excessive exposure. Where lead is present over the action level, employers must provide the workforce with personal protective equipment (PPE) suitable for controlling the hazard. The most effective way to reduce airborne lead is to replace lead and products that contain lead with less or non-toxic materials, such as using latex paint instead of lead paint.
Removal of lead, or lead containing materials, can be handled in several ways. For example, the entire piece can be removed and replaced.
Material containing lead can be covered with another material. Before attempting to remove material containing lead, consult with federal and state Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations.
Change rooms, showers, and filtered air lunchrooms should be made available to workers who are exposed to lead above the permissible exposure limit (PEL). After showering, no clothing or equipment worn during the shift may be worn home, because lead toxicity poses specific risks for children. Lunchrooms may not be entered with protective clothing or equipment unless surface dust has been removed by vacuuming, downdraft booth, or other cleaning method. Anytime workers are exposed to lead dust, hand washing and face scrubbing prior to eating, drinking, smoking, or applying cosmetics, should be strongly encouraged if not mandatory.
In work areas where lead is a hazard, signs must be posted to warn the employees of the danger of lead hazard in the area. Awareness is critical in allowing the workforce to understand and implement best practices for working with lead.
When exposure to lead is not controlled below the PEL by other means, employers are required to provide and assure the use of respirators. It is important that workers receive training on respirator use and that respirators fit properly to protect from airborne lead. Employer must test fits to ensure that respirators provide adequate protection. If workers have difficulty breathing during a fit test or while using a respirator, a medical examination must be made available to them to determine if they can safely wear a respirator.
If workers are exposed to lead above the PEL or if they are exposed to lead compounds such as lead arsenate or lead azide, they must wear personal protective equipment clothing to prevent skin and eye irritation. Protective clothing could include full body work clothing, hats, gloves, shoes, shoe coverlets, face shields, or vented goggles.
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