Lead in the Workplace

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:

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.

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