How Can I Protect My Workers from Lead Exposure?

And Other Questions to Ask if You Run a Business

Lead is dangerous to human health and most adult exposure to harmful levels happens in the workplace. Business owners are responsible for keeping their workers safe from lead exposure. If you do not keep your employees safe, you could face consequences from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or legal action from harmed employees.

In order to keep your employees healthy, it’s important that you are testing for environmental hazards. If you are aware of your workers coming into contact with contaminants such as lead while on the job, it is up to your business to address the issue and mitigate harm.

Environmental Hazards Services (EHS) has compiled a list of questions to help you navigate keeping your workplace and workers free of harmful lead.

Is Lead Exposure Common in My Industry?

General sources of lead include buildings built prior to lead-based paints being banned in 1978, certain types of older pipes or air near airports. However, there are certain industries where workers are more susceptible to lead exposure.

There are some jobs that carry obvious risks of exposure such as lead manufacturing, mining, refining and smelting. Here are some other workers that the CDC states are at a higher risk of coming into contact with lead:

  • Building demolition crews
  • Commercial and residential construction workers
  • Artists
  • Miners
  • Painters or sanders who work on industrial projects
  • Recycling plant workers
  • Firing range employees
  • Welders
  • Auto mechanics
  • Manufacturers of batteries, bullets, electronics or glass
  • Plumbers
  • Radiator repair workers
  • Shipbuilders
  • Waste incinerators

How Much Lead Exposure is Considered Safe?

OSHA has determined that the maximum lead exposure level in workplace air is 50 µg/m3 (8-hour time weighted average). Which means that over the course of a standard workday there can be an average of 50 micrograms per meters cubed in the air. At certain points of the day it could be higher or lower but OSHA is looking for the average workers are exposed to each day. For reference, a gram is equal to about one small paper clip and a microgram is one millionth of that.

This maximum or Permissible Exposure Limit calls for the use of personal protective equipment. According to the CDC, the “action level” which is the highest level allowed without any form of employee protection is 30 µg/m3 (8-hour time weighted average).

If workers are consistently exposed to an action level quantity of lead or higher, they must be regularly receiving blood lead level tests.

Employers are required to notify any employees whose test results show that they have 40 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood or higher.

Someone working in shipbuilding or general industries who tests for 60 µg/dL must be temporarily removed from environments with lead exposure. For construction workers they must be removed if their blood lead level reaches 50 µg/dL.

There are EPA standards that establish how much lead can be in soil or water. When it comes to soil, lead concentrations must be below 400 parts per million (ppm) by weight for places where children play and 1200 ppm in all other areas. Parts per million is a ratio comparing the mass of an object, such as lead, with the volume of soil that it is in. This measurement is commonly used for elements with low concentrations in soil.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said drinking water is only fully considered safe when there are zero traces of lead found. The action level set by the EPA is 15 parts per billion (ppb). For reference, that would be 15 tablespoons for every 1,302,000 gallons or 63.5 swimming pools of water.

What are the Symptoms of Lead Poisoning for Adults?

Lead poisoning is most common and dangerous for children but adults can still experience concerning symptoms.

According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms can include:

  • Reproductive issues for men
  • Mood disorders
  • Pain in your abdomen, muscles or joints
  • Memory or concentration loss
  • Headaches
  • Miscarriages, stillbirths or premature births

How and When Should I Test an Environment for Lead?

There are many scenarios that should prompt you to test your business for environmental hazards including lead. Some examples are:

  • You recently moved locations
  • Lead is used in your workplace
  • If your employees work at off-site locations with potential lead dangers
  • Your building was built before 1978
  • Your building is near a roadway where exhaust levels are high
  • There’s peeling paint in the building
  • An employee has a higher than average blood lead level

The most reliable way to determine if your company’s locations have lead in the air or paint is by getting lab testing done. Accurate lab testing is crucial to helping you identify dangers in the workplace. EHS has the equipment and technical expertise to help you determine if lead is posing a danger to your employees.

What Should I Do If Lead is Found in My Workplace?

If a lab test shows unsafe lead levels in your workplace, you should encourage employees to get their blood levels tested. If lead exposure is an ongoing concern, workers should be tested routinely.

There are some ways to try and mitigate exposure to lead such as:

  • Encourage regular hand washing
  • Give employees lead removal products for their skin
  • Clean dusty surfaces
  • Remove potentially contaminated shoes prior to entering a building
  • Run cold water through lead pipes before using
  • Keep your building free of lead-based paint
  • Replace lead-containing items
  • Keep areas well ventilated
  • Provide personal protective equipment

Who Regulates Lead?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates lead in accordance with a variety of laws passed by congress including the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

The EPA enforces lead-based paint violations.

In 2020, Home Depot paid the EPA civil penalty of $20.75 million after breaking the Toxic Substances Control Act by subcontracting firms who were not complying with lead standards. According to the EPA, the home improvement giant was working with firms that did not use “lead-safe work practices” or do the required cleaning after renovation projects to protect home residents from potential lead exposure.

The EPA has also stepped in to get lead contaminated soils removed from Superfunds, playgrounds, fields and industrial sites.

Industries such as manufacturing and utilities must follow the Clean Air Act requirements regarding lead. If companies violate lead laws, they could face lawsuits from the EPA.

When it comes to the responsibilities of employers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a few different sets of standards that apply to lead. 

For general industry there are rules regarding respiratory protection, access to employee medical records and toxic and hazardous substances.

The standards regarding toxic and hazardous substances sets the permissible exposure limit of 50 ug/m3. It also outlines how to monitor exposure and explains that proper protective wear and cleaning must be used to keep workers safe.

There are two industries that have additional standards that must be followed to reduce lead exposure. The maritime industry is held to specific standards in order to protect shipyard workers. The same goes for workers in the construction industry.

How are Children Impacted When Their Parents Bring Home Lead?

Children under 6 years old are at the most risk for lead related issues. While an adult’s blood can withstand certain levels of lead, there is no safe blood lead level in children.

There are many ways kids can be exposed to lead, but one is when parents come home from work in clothing that has traces of lead on it. If a child has possibly been exposed, it’s important that their parents take them to the doctor. The doctor will determine whether or not a blood lead test is needed.

The CDC states that lead exposure symptoms can include:

  • Brain and nervous system damage
  • Slowed development and growth
  • Behavior issues
  • Learning delays
  • Hearing and speech problems

Who Can Test My Workplace for Lead?

EHS can provide the testing you need to stay on top of workplace safety. Lead can be harmful to people of all ages and it’s important to prevent exposure.

Call EHS today to get help protecting your workplace from lead.

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