Lead: How to Work Safely

An estimated 280,000 workers in NSW are potentially exposed to lead every day. Many of these workers are unaware that they, their colleagues and their families could be at risk.

Lead can have many subtle, but serious, long term health effects. Pregnant women and young children are particularly vulnerable to lead.

Employers have a duty of care to provide a lead-safe work environment for employees. Furthermore, workers can take many simple actions to protect themselves from lead.

What are the health effects?

Lead is a cumulative poison. When inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin, lead is toxic to virtually every human organ.

From a single exposure, lead is quickly distributed and stored through the body where it remains a long term source of internal exposure.

Exposure to lead can have a broad range of health effects depending on the amount of lead present and the length of exposure.

Generally, the greater the exposure, the greater the impact on health, though children will be more affected at lower levels of exposure than adults.

Where lead is stored in the body:
95% Long bones
4% Soft tissue (brain, liver, kidneys)
1% Blood

Who is at risk?

Lead workers are traditionally thought to be those working in mining, smelting and refining industries, or in the manufacture of lead products such as lead-acid batteries. However, there is a large number of occupations outside these industries that either use materials containing lead or can disturb existing lead hazards in older buildings or industrial sites.

Examples of lead-risk occupations

  • Abrasive blasters and coaters
  • Architects
  • Building inspectors
  • Cable layers
  • Carpenters
  • Carpetlayers
  • Cabinet makers
  • Demolition workers
  • Electricians
  • Gasfitters
  • Glaziers
  • Plumbers
  • Painters and decorators
  • Metalworkers
  • Plasterers
  • Roofing contractors
  • Shopfitters
  • Tilers

Occupational exposures in workplaces mostly stem from the inhalation, ingestion and absorption of lead fumes, dusts and particles from a wide variety of sources. Exposure levels can be significantly increased by poor occupational safety and hygiene practices.

Sources of Lead

Lead is described as a ‘multi-source toxin’. Workers are particularly at risk as they are often exposed to many sources of lead over long periods of time. Main sources of lead at work are:

  • Lead paint including:
  • Domestic paint used in many houses built before 1970.
  • Protective coatings used on industrial buildings, plant and equipment.
  • Marine, automotive and vehicle paints.
  • Specialised paints, such as road marking and sign writing applications.
  • Building products which can contain lead including flashing, sheet lead, PVC products, lead solder and plumbing fittings.
  • Petrol and lubricants including leaded petrol, some types of oil and grease and waste oil.
  • Hazardous lead dust which can accumulate in old buildings or workplaces which are not cleaned properly. Many work practices commonly used in industry, such as burning, sanding and grinding, can disturb or create hazardous lead fumes and dust which workers can take into their bodies.

There are many other materials and products, often inadequately labelled, commonly used in industry which contain lead.

How lead can enter your body

  • Breathing in dust and fumes is the main way lead enters a worker’s body. Fine particles of lead can penetrate deep into the lungs and rapidly pass into the blood.
  • Eating contaminated food and drink can occur if workers don’t wash their hands before meals and eat in workplaces where lead dust is present. Smokers can accidentally take in lead dust on their hands or cigarettes.
  • Absorption through the skin can occur where leaded petrol or lubricants are handled without gloves or barrier cream. Recent research suggests that fine particles of lead may be able to enter the body through sweat pores in the skin.

Lead and the law

Employers have a duty of care under the NSW Occupational Health and Safety Act 2000 to provide a safe and healthy working environment. Any material containing more than 1% lead is a ‘designated hazardous substance’ in NSW.

The NSW WorkCover Code of Practice for the Control of Hazardous Substances requires occupational lead hazards to be controlled and specifies the requirements for the labelling, storage, transport and disposal of lead materials and waste.

On a national level, the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission has developed a National Code of Practice for the Control and Safe Use of Inorganic Lead at Work.

How workplaces can control lead hazards

Develop a safe system of work

  1. Assess lead risks at work. Testing and assessing lead hazards is essential if there is a potential risk from lead. Suppliers and employers are required to provide Materials Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for any suspect materials or chemicals.
  2. Use alternatives to lead. Other products are available which are lead free or have less lead eg. acrylic coated flashing, lead free paint and PVC, tin or silver solder etc.
  3. Create a safe workplace. Many simple changes to plant, machinery, production processes, equipment and work practices can reduce the dangers of lead. Isolating lead hazards or lead processes is critical to reduce risk. Engineering solutions, such as ducted extraction, are highly effective in removing lead dust and fumes.
  4. Provide facilities and ensure that hands and face are washed before meals and smoking. This will help ensure lead dust is not accidentally ingested. Smoking or carrying cigarettes where lead dust is present is very hazardous. Employers must provide appropriate facilities.
  5. Ensure that work clothes are changed out of when finished for the day. This stops lead dust being taken home on bodies, clothes and cars and help protect workers’ families.
  6. Ensure the use of appropriate Personal Protective Equipment. Respirators and face masks, overalls, gloves and other PPE will help protect workers from lead and other dangerous materials. Employers are required to provide correct PPE that is properly maintained and to train workers in its proper use.

Useful References

WorkCover NSW, Code of Practice for the Control of Hazardous Substances [1996]

The NSW Lead Reference Centre

The Lead Group

This Fact Sheet was jointly developed by the NSW Lead Reference Centre and the Workers Health Centre, Granville. It is part of a cooperative effort to inform employers, workers and their families about preventing occupational exposure to lead.

This Fact Sheet is courtesy of The Workers Health Centre.

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Download the Lead: How to Work Safely Fact Sheet

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