Lead on the Job: A Guide for Employees
Lead poisoning has been a serious health concern for centuries. Even though much is known about lead and how it can affect your health, lead poisoning is still very common today.
Lead is used in batteries, car radiators, plumbing and some paints, bullets, pottery and in many other products. Workers in approximately 120 occupational use lead. Lead can cause severe health problems unless it is handles properly.
How does lead affect the body?
Workers can be exposed to lead by breathing in lead dust or fumes from work activities, by eating, drinking or smoking in work areas, or by handling contaminated objects-and accidentally swallowing lead dust. Workers in many workplaces have so much lead in their bodies that they are slowly being poisoned. The symptoms may hardly be noticeable at first, but over time, lead can damage the brain, blood, nerves, kidneys and reproductive organs. This damage can cause extreme tiredness, emotional problems, even kidney failure, coma or death.
Young children are especially affected by lead. Lead dust can collect on work clothes during the day. When those clothese are worn home, the lead can contaminate workers' cars and homes. Young children can then be poisoned by the lead-contaminated dust.
How do I know if I have too much lead in my body?
Lean poisoning can occur when people are exposed to large or small amounts of lead over time. Lead builds up in the body and may cause temporary or permanent damage. A blood lead test can show whether your body has absorbed a dangerous amount of lead. A bigh blood lead level is an indication that lead is building up in the body faster than it can be eliminated.
What are the signs of lead poisoning?
There are many symptoms or signs that suggest a problem with lead, but they can also be symptoms of other illnesses. It is also possible to have lead poisoning without noticing any symptoms. If you work around lead you should regularly see your doctor, whether or not you are experiencing the following symptoms:
Early signs and symptoms of lead poisoning:
- Uneasy stomach
- Irritability or nervousness
- Poor appetite
- Metallic taste
- Reproductive problems
Later signs and symptoms:
- Aches or pains in stomach
- Weight loss
- Memory problems
- Muscle and joint pains
- Weak wrists or ankles
- Kidney problems
Health Effects of Lead In Adults
Each individual responds differently to lead exposure. This chart indicates the blood lead levels at which you may experience the various ill effects of lead. In general, the effects of lead on children are even more serious.
Blood Lead Level (mcg/dl)
Severe brain damage (encephalopathy)
Headaches, memory and concentration problems, sleep disturbances, mood changes
Stomach pain, constipation, diarrhea, loss of appetite
Nerve disorders; decreased red blood cells
Male reproductive problems; kidney damage
Increase in blood pressure
Harmful effects on the fetus
LEAD MAY ALSO CAUSE CANCER
Extreme cases of lead poisoning can result in convulsions, coma or death. It is important to emphasize, however, that lead may be causing injury to the body, even when none of these signs and symptoms are present. (See table on health effects of lead)
What is the OSHA Lead Standard?
29 CFR 1910.1025 Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) covers most industries in the private sector, but not in construction or agriculture.
NOTE: While the OSHA Lead Standard does not legally apply to construction, it is recommended that all workers exposed to lead have the same or similar protection.
The Lead Standard, written by OSHA, requires employers to do a number of things to make certain the workplace is safe. No employee should be exposed to lead at or above 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air (mcg/m 3) in an 8-hour day, the OSHA Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL). Clean showers, change rooms and lunchrooms must be provided and used. The Standard also requires sampling for lead exposures, methods for reducing lead in the workplace, medical testing or employees to determine whether their bodies are taking in too much lead, and paid removal from the job in cases of lead poisoning.
The requirements of the Lead Standard are based on airborne levels of lead in the workplace. It should be remembered, however, that swallowing lead dust can also cause a problem. Therefore, keeping the workplace clean is very important.
What are my rights under the OSAH Lead Standard?
The Lead Standard gives you, as a worker exposed to lead, several rights provided by your employer. The requirements of the Lead Standard depend on how much lead is in the workplace air.
1. To find out if there is a lead problem, your employer must test the air for lead in those areas that appear to have the highest levels of lead in the air.
2. If monitoring (air sampling) shows lead above 30 mcg/m 3 (OSHA "Action Level") but below 50 mcg/m 3 over an 8-hour day, your employer is required to do the following:
You have the right to be informed that you are working with lead, as well as any other hazardous materials. Training is required, once a year, in the correct handling of lead products, in the manner in which lead affects your health, in ways to protect yourself from lead exposure and in the details of the OSHA Lead Standard.
b. Air monitoring
Monitoring for airborne concentrations of lead is required every 6 months. Your employer must notify you of the results of this monitoring in writing. The permissible exposure limit set by OSHA is 50 mcg/m 3, averaged over an 8-hour workday.
c. Medical Examinations (only if you are exposed to lead above 30 mcg/m 3 over an 8-hour day, for more than 30 days per year).
You have the right to a medical exam (to be paid by your employer) before you begin work that exposes you to lead. Medical exams are also to be provided if you have symptoms of lead poisoning, elevated blood lead levels, difficulty in using a respirator, concerns about the reproductive hazards of lead, or if you are on medical removal protection.
d. Biological Monitoring (only if you are exposed to lead above 30 mcg/m 3 over an 8-hour day, for more than 30 days per year).
You have the right to have your blood tested for lead and, paid for by your employer, to determine if your body is taking in too much lead, and the results must be given to you in writing. This monitoring is to be repeated at intervals specified in the OSHA Lead Standard.
e. Medical Removal
You have a right to be removed from lead exposure if your confirmed blood lead level reaches or exceeds 60 micrograms per 100 milliliters of whole blood (mcg/dl), or if an average of the last three blood lead levels (or if the average f all blood tests over the past 6 months, whichever is longer), is at or above 50 mcg/dl. Removal is not required, however, if the last test is below 40 mcg/dl.) Medical removal continues until two blood lead levels in a row are below 40 mcg/dl. You may also be removed from lead exposure if you have a medical condition that could be worsened by exposure to lead. During your medical removal, your employer must pay you your regular earnings, and keep your seniority and other employment rights and benefits as though your work had not been changed. Medical removal can be continued for 18 months.
In some very extreme cases of lead poisoning, a doctor may recommend that you be chelated. Chelation is a medical treatment to remove lead from the blood. There are very serious potential side effects to this treatment, including kidney damage. Therefore, it should only be used in very serious cases and should never be used to routinely keep your blood lead level low.
3. If air monitoring shows lead above 50 mcg/m 3 over an 8-hour day, your employer is also required to do the following:
a. Repeat Air Monitoring Every 3 Months
b. Showers and Change Rooms
Your employer must provide clean showers, changing rooms and separate storage for street clothes and soiled work clothes.
c. Lunch Rooms
Your employer must provide a lunchroom separate from the work area, and facilities for washing.
d. Ventilation (only if you are exposed to lead above 30 mcg/m 3 over an 8-hour day, for more than 30 days per year).
Your employer must install local exhaust ventilation or other engineering or work practice measures to limit your exposure so that it does not exceed the PEL, if feasible.
e. Respiratory Protection and Protective Equipment
Your employer must provide you with appropriate respirators (disposable paper masks are not acceptable) and training in their use, until the PEL can be reached using ventilation or work practice controls, or if such controls are not feasible. You must also be given protective clothing and equipment, including coveralls, gloves, goggles and shoes.
What steps can I take to protect myself?
- Use the ventilation systems that are provided for your protection. Be aware of how these systems work, and whether they are working correctly.
- Use the correct respirator. Your employer must provide the appropriate respirator for the job, and must have a program for cleaning respirators and making sure that they are in good repair and fir properly.
- Keep your work area clean. Do not use compressed air to remove lead dust. Your employer should provide a vacuum with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter or use a wet cleaning method.
- Do not eat, drink or smoke in work areas. Your employer must provide a separate area free of lead dust.
- Always wash your hands and face before eating, drinking or smoking.
- Shower, wash your hair and change into clean clothes, including shoes, before leaving the workplace. Lead dust on your clothes can contaminate your home and harm your children.
- Store street clothes in a separate locker from your work clothes.
- Eat a well-balanced diet. Fasting can increase your body's lead level. Proper nutrition can help reduce lead levels.
For further assistance or information about the lead registry,
please call or write:
Occupational Lead Registry
Department of Labor Standards
1001 Watertown Street, 2 nd Floor
West Newton, MA 02465
To obtain a copy of the OSHA Lead Standard (29 CFR1910.1025) contact the nearest OSHA area office:
Occupational Safety and Health Administration
639 Granite Street, 4 th Floor
Braintree, MA 02184
Occupational Safety and Health Administration
138 River Road, Suite 102
Andover, MA 01810
Occupational Safety and Health Administration
1141 Main Street
Springfield, MA 01103
Content for this brochure was adapted from the Texas Department of Health and the California Department of Health Services.