Most people are familiar with the problem of lead poisoning in children. But, what many don’t know is that adults are also affected. While in children lead exposure typically occurs in or around the home, for adults it’s primarily a workplace problem.
Workers in over 120 different industries are exposed to lead. Construction workers might come across lead when performing demolition; painters may come into contact with it when sanding or scraping old lead-based paint; radiator repair workers can be exposed to lead when welding or soldering parts.
Many of these workers don’t recognize that they’re handling materials that contain lead. Even those that do frequently don’t understand why it presents a hazard.
Lead can enter the body in one of two ways: small lead particles can be inhaled directly or they can settle on things like food and drinks and subsequently be ingested. (Most lead cannot enter the body through the skin.) Lead particles are generated in a variety of different ways. Melting or soldering a lead-containing alloy, for example, creates lead fumes; cutting, grinding, or polishing a material that contains lead generates lead dust; and spraying a lead-containing paint or glaze forms a lead mist.
After entering the body, lead circulates in the blood and is stored in the bones. Over time, lead levels build up in the body and cause a variety of health problems. Lead’s effect on the nervous system can result in headaches, irritability, difficulty sleeping, poor concentration, and memory loss; its effects on the gastrointestinal system include nausea, constipation, diarrhea, lack of appetite, and abdominal pain. Damage to the bone marrow caused by lead can result in a reduced red blood cell count called anemia. Severe lead poisoning can be fatal.
But exposure to lead—particularly at low levels—doesn’t always cause symptoms. Even when symptoms are present, they’re often subtle and may mimic other illnesses. This can make lead poisoning difficult to diagnose. In fact, serious and sometimes irreversible health problems occur before lead poisoning is detected.
That’s why it’s important to be regularly tested for lead exposure if you work with it. A blood test can be used to measure the amount of lead in your blood. If your blood lead level is found to be high, your employer must remove you from the area or task where your exposure to lead is occurring. Your body will then naturally eliminate lead over time and your blood lead level will gradually decline. In cases of severe poisoning, medications may be necessary to treat the poisoning.
California state law requires that employers take precautions to protect workers from lead exposure. The General Industry Lead Advisor
enforced by the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA) requires that employers:
Train employees how to work with lead safely. Health and safety training on the hazards of lead must be conducted annually.
Provide medical monitoring. Medical examinations and blood lead testing must be made available to employees exposed to air lead levels at or above an ‘action level’ established by Cal/OSHA. (The action level is 30 micrograms of lead per cubic meter of air averaged over an 8-hour period.)
When air lead levels exceed the permissible exposure level, the employer must also:
Furnish protective clothing and equipment. Appropriate protective work clothing and equipment must be provided to employees.
Provide a change room and shower facilities. Separate storage facilities for work clothing and equipment and for street clothing must be available to prevent cross contamination with lead.
Provide a clean lunchroom. Eating, drinking, and smoking in areas where air lead levels are elevated must be prohibited.
Unfortunately, not all employers abide by these regulations. For example, studies have found that only a small percentage of employers in lead industries provide routine blood lead testing for lead-exposed employees.
If you work with lead (or believe you might) and feel that your employer is not taking the appropriate precautions to protect you, contact Cal/OSHA. Cal/OSHA will not tell your employer who made the call. For help finding the office nearest you, contact the Cal/OSHA Worker Hotline
at (866) 924-9757.
Occupational Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (California Department of Public Health)
Safety and Health Topics: Lead (U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration)
Workplace Safety and Health Topics- Lead (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)