Lead is a highly toxic material that can cause severe neurological disorders and cancer. Lead is often found in the renovation, demolition, manufacturing, and recycling industries. One of the best ways to protect workers against lead exposure is to practise good hygiene at work.

How workers are exposed

Lead has been commonly used in paints and coatings. It can still be found in many old homes. Removing lead-based paint, or demolishing walls coated with it, can release lead dust into the air. The most common activities that expose workers to lead are:

  • Smelting, casting, and refining
  • Welding, brazing, and soldering where lead is in the metal, on the metal, or in the solder or braze
  • Radiator manufacture and repair
Working with batteries
  • Manufacturing
  • Recycling
Demolition and abatement
  • Renovating or tearing down any structure that has lead-based paints or coatings
  • Making or using products that contain lead (paint, plastics, ammunition, ceramics)
Working with scrap metal
  • Salvaging
  • Recycling

Inorganic lead, which is the lead used in manufacturing, is not readily absorbed through the skin. Workers commonly inhale it or ingest it. Here's how that typically happens:

  • Breathing lead dust, mist or fumes
  • Smoking where lead dust, mist or fumes are present
  • Drinking or eating food contaminated with lead
  • Using contaminated cups, bowls, etc.
  • Biting fingernails after touching lead
  • Chewing gum where lead dust, mist or fumes are present
  • Chewing on work pencils contaminated with lead

The risks

Lead is toxic to almost all of our organs. The body will naturally get rid of lead over time but lead can accumulate faster than your body can get rid of it. Repeated exposure to low doses of lead, or short-term exposure to high doses, causes health problems. These can include:

  • Stomach pain
  • Headache
  • Irritability
  • Muscle pain
  • Pre-term birth in pregnant women, as well as reduced birth weight and decreased mental ability in the infant
  • Tiredness and weakness
  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal pain
  • Neurological issues
  • Kidney failure
  • Cancer

How to reduce the risk

Good personal hygiene helps prevent lead exposure. Workers should wash their hands before eating, drinking, and smoking. While working they should also avoid chewing gum, biting their fingernails, and chewing on pencils. Workers should leave their work clothes at work. Bringing work clothes home can expose families to lead dust, which is especially dangerous for children and for pregnant women.

The best way to reduce the risk of exposure to lead is to eliminate the source of exposure. If that's not possible, there are other risk controls to use. When choosing risk controls, start by asking the questions in the following steps. The steps are listed in order of effectiveness.

  1. 1

    Elimination or substitution

    Eliminating the hazard by substituting a safer process or material, where possible, is the most effective control. A question to consider:

    • Can you replace lead-based materials (e.g., paint) with lead-free alternates?
  2. 2

    Engineering controls

    Making physical modifications to facilities, equipment, and processes can reduce exposure. Some questions to consider:

    • Can local exhaust ventilation be used or improved?
    • Can workers be enclosed away from lead-generating processes?
  3. 3

    Administrative controls

    These involve changing work practices and work policies. Providing awareness tools and training also count as administrative controls. All can limit the risk of lead exposure. Some questions to consider:

    • Have you developed a written exposure control plan for lead?
    • Can warning signs be posted in the work area?
    • Can work shift times be shortened for workers exposed to lead?
    • Can shower and change facilities provide separate areas for work and street clothes?
    • Can eating facilities be moved away from work areas?
    • Do you need a blood lead monitoring program?
  4. 4

    Personal protective equipment

    This is the least effective control. When used, there must always be at least one other control in place as well. Some questions to consider:

    • Do workers have the proper respirators, eye wear, and protective clothing?
    • Has personal protective equipment been tested to make sure it is working properly?