How We Can Work Safely With Lead

We have known that lead is a toxic substance for many years and many of us are worried about lead in our homes or in the environment. However, the greatest danger for lead exposure is within the workplace. Exposure to lead can be very dangerous to human health, so it is very important to control this hazard in the workplace.

Lead is a metal which is very toxic and is used when burning fossil fuels. Lead and its alloys are used to make everything from ammunition to batteries and other products. In the past, lead also used to be used in products such as ceramics, paint, caulk and pipe solder. Recently, the amount of lead used in these objects has been reduced or removed due to our knowledge of its toxicity. However, lead is still being used in a number of industries including mining, manufacturing and construction. Workers in these industries are at risk for being exposed to lead, such as breathing it, coming in contact with it or ingesting it.

Approximately 70% of the lead dust or fumes that a worker breathes are absorbed into their body and 30% of the lead that one swallows will be absorbed into the body. Awareness of lead exposure and safety when working with lead is a very important subject that will be covered in your occupational health and safety training.

Health Effects of Lead

Lead exposure has a number of serious health effects on workers who are exposed to it. Some of the symptoms of lead exposure include fatigue, headaches, irritability, high blood pressure and nervousness, pain in the joints, insomnia, poor appetite and aching muscles. Stomach pains and constipation have also been reported as symptoms of lead exposure. If you are at risk of being exposed to lead in your workplace and you are experiencing these symptoms, you should see your doctor as soon as possible.

When lead exposure becomes more severe, the effects can lead to problems such as cancer, damage to the nervous system and much more. It can also cause kidney damage, birth defects, sterility and anaemia and can even interfere with the body’s ability to form blood. The health effects of lead are difficult to diagnose, because they appear very slowly.

Many doctors will not automatically assume that the problems are associated with lead exposure, as they could be caused by other issues. Many workers with these problems tend to develop them over many years, the health effects gradually disabling them and bringing down their quality of life.

Is There a Medical Test for Lead Exposure?

There are medical tests available that will determine the amount of lead that has accumulated in a person’s body. The test is a blood lead level test, but it is only able to measure recent exposure to lead rather than long term exposure. If you undergo this test and are found to have high blood levels of lead, your doctor will likely request a complete physical examination to assess the effects of lead exposure on your body. This exam will usually be carried out by an occupational physician who specialises in this type of medicine. The exam will help to determine the degree of the lead poisoning and what kind of damage it has caused to the body.

Is it Possible to Treat Lead Poisoning?

If you have been overexposed to lead in the workplace, the working situation in which you were exposed should be stopped immediately. Controls should be introduced within the workplace to prevent this from reoccurring.

If you have been severely exposed to lead, there is a medical treatment that can help. It is called Chelation and it helps the body to get rid of the lead. Usually this treatment is done with a chelating agent such as penicillamine or calcium disodium versanate. Chelating is when ions and molecules bind to metal ions, so these chelating agents will detoxify the poisonous lead and convert it to a chemically inert form which can be excreted from the body without further effect. However, chelating treatments can have harmful side effects and the treatment should only be conducted by trained medical personnel in a hospital setting.

How to Prevent Lead Exposure

Lead is toxic and very harmful, so how can you reduce the risk of lead poisoning in the workplace? There are a number of things that you can do to make a workplace safer and reduce the risk of lead poisoning, such as:
  • Whenever possible, remove lead from the workplace. Use paints, equipment and materials that do not contain lead and replace old equipment and materials that might contain it. Unfortunately, this is sometimes not possible.
  • Keep lead out of the air that you breathe. Lead will enter the air as a dust or a fume. Fumes boil-off when the lead is heated and dust particles are formed when the lead is ground or filed.
  • During lead removal, servicing or maintenance work a film of lead dust can gather in the air and on work surfaces. All materials or surfaces that might have this layer of lead dust should be removed and thoroughly cleaned.
  • Local exhaust ventilation should be used to remove lead fumes and dust from the air.
  • Workers in an environment with the risk of lead fumes or dust should always wear goggles, gloves, clothing protection, boots and respirators to protect them from exposure.
  • Workers should also have access to facilities where they can clean themselves after working with lead.
  • Any worker who is dealing with lead in their work tasks should have undergone the appropriate health and safety training – so that they are aware of the risks and how to prevent them.
  • Workers should know that they need to report any lead hazards in the workplace to their supervisor immediately.

Keep these tips in mind so that you can create a safer work environment and avoid the negative effects of exposure to lead in the workplace.

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