Lead is a heavy metal found on construction sites mostly in paint and in soil. It is a hazard to workers when it becomes airborne. Work activities such as scraping, cutting, burning, chipping and blasting on structures with lead paint on them cause lead to be present in the air workers breath. Soil that contains lead gets airborne from activities such as digging, pile driving, excavating. Lead enters the body through inhalation or ingestion.
Employers must use reliable methods to determine worker’s exposure to airborne lead. They may use reliable historical data, or air monitoring to determine their employee’s exposures. When lead is present, exposures must be estimated based on the task the worker is performing, and protection provided accordingly. Once monitoring of the activity is performed, then the results of the tests may be relied upon for protection methods. For example, welding on a bridge that was painted with lead paint must be treated as a high exposure until actual data is collected. The Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) for lead is 50 mcg/m3 over an 8 hour time weighted average.
The level at which an employer must have a program in place is 30 mcg/m3. A program must be in writing and include measures that the employer will take to protect workers from exposure to lead. First, engineering controls, such as mechanical ventilation must be employed. Second, workers must be given appropriate respiratory protection. A half-face air-purifying respirator provides protection up to ten times the PEL, or up to 500mcg/m3. A full-face air-purifying respirator provides protection up to 50 times the PEL, or 2500 mcg/m3. For exposures higher than 2500mcg, supplied-air is required. When using air-purifying respirators, HEPA filters are needed. HEPA filters are pink or lavender in color. When workers are to be in an environment that is contaminated at or above the PEL for lead, employers must provide a place for workers to wash their hands before eating or smoking and showers for after the work shift. It is imperative if working around lead, no matter the amount, that workers be diligent about washing their hands thoroughly before eating or smoking. It is equally important that workers shower, and/or change clothes before going home. Children are especially sensitive to the damaging effects of lead. Don’t bring lead dust home to your children!!! In order to determine the amount of lead in a workers body, blood must be tested. Blood lead levels (BLL) must be checked under the supervision of a physician, who must be available for workers to ask questions of, especially questions associated with reproductive issues, or if a worker feels he/she might have symptoms of lead poisoning. Most scientists consider a BLL of 25 mcg/dL to be elevated in an adult, and 10 mcg./dL. in a child. If a worker’s BLL is as high as 40mcg./dL, he should see a physician for a complete physical exam, and at 50 mcg./dL, he must be removed from lead work. All blood tests done for California workers are reported to the Department of Health for monitoring. Monitoring results, from air samples or blood samples must be given to employees within 5 days of their employer’s receipt of the results. Early symptoms of lead poisoning include restlessness, irritability, feeling of dullness. Lead can cause problems with kidneys, blood pressure, sexual and reproductive issues, brain damage, and more. It is a good idea for workers with exposure to lead to eat foods that are high in calcium and iron, and to drink plenty of water.