Lead Safety in the Workplace
For the longest time, it was believed that only children were exposed to lead poisoning, usually acquiring it through eating lead based paint chips off of doors or window sills. However, recent studies suggest that several adults across the country are also at risk for lead poisoning. The study, which was conducted over a 5 year span, indicated that many adults are exposed to lead while in the workplace and can suffer from various degrees of lead poisoning depending on the amount of exposure. In fact, the old myth that lead can only enter the body through eating paint chips is false. Yes, you can obviously still get lead poisoning from eating paint chips, but it is not the primary way lead can get into the body. Workers that work with lead based paints or products that can contain lead are at risk for lead poisoning for a number of reasons. Oftentimes, lead dust and lead fumes are created during various work processes and can attach to clothing, carpets, furniture, drapes, and can also pollute the surrounding air. Because of these recently realized lead risks in the workplace, we feel it is important to remind everyone of the importance of lead safety while on the job.
This recent discovery has already created a bit of a stir in some areas of the country. In fact, the public outcry surrounding lead poisoning is eerily reminiscent of what was experienced with asbestos. Even though it is clear that lead poisoning is has not yet generated the same awareness as asbestos did, all signs point to an increase in public awareness where lead poisoning could possibly generate the same public backlash that asbestos did. The bad news doesn’t necessarily stop there either. Lead accumulates in the body, much like asbestos, except lead will not only damage just the lungs, but it will also affect the kidneys, intestines, the central nervous system, and even the reproductive system. Data from the new research has also found that adults who are most at risk for lead poisoning are ones who are exposed to lead on a regular basis, especially the ones who are not aware of it. Typical occupations where lead exposure is common are painters, demolition workers, shipyard workers, hazardous waste haulers, construction workers-particularly those who work on bridges, tunnels, water towers, and other similar structures; and workers who work in a building or structure that has been coated in lead based paints. People who live near lead abatement projects that haven’t implemented containment to prevent pollution of the surrounding areas are also at risk.
With industries that have identified exposures to unsafe levels of lead, companies must make a determination of exactly how much lead is in their air. This is usually done through air sampling. Generally speaking, any airborne lead levels that exceed 30 micrograms per cubic meter of air will prompt OSHA requirements to kick in. This means an air monitoring system will have to be established within the workplace and will have to quantifythe amount of exposure employees are experiencing at least once every 6 months. Establishing a medical surveillance program will also be required for workers who are exposed to levels above the “action level” of 30 micrograms. Along with this, there will have to be a training program implemented to train and educate workers, employees, and supervisors on recognizing the symptoms of lead poisoning and how they can better protect themselves from over exposure. OSHA has established the maximum permissible exposure level (PEL) in the workplace to be 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air. If the 50 PEL limit is eclipsed, then several practices will need to be implemented including personal hygiene practices, personal protective equipment, housekeeping practices, and respirators.
When you know you are working with lead, there are a number of things you will want to be aware of. We’ve already discussed how lead can enter the body through various means, most prominently through inhaling lead dust or lead fumes. A majority of lead exposure occurs through exposure to lead dust. This dust will attach to your skin and clothing, so personal hygiene becomes extremely important. You also NEVER want to eat, drink, smoke, or apply cosmetics while you are in polluted areas, or even if you’re still wearing clothing with lead dust on it. Along with this, you want to avoid wearing the clothes you wore at work at home. It is possible to come home from a long day working with lead and end up infecting all areas of your home including your vehicle or even other family members. Make it a habit to change out of any clothes worn while working with lead-NEVER wear them or even bring them home. They should be kept at the work site at all times.
Employers need to also exercise caution to prevent creating dust where they know lead is present. Spills can lead to large areas of air to become contaminated with lead very quickly, creating a problem for the entire workplace. You also never want to dry sweep areas where you know lead dust has been. You need to wet down the area with water and then vacuum it with a HEPA vacuum. All cleanup tasks should be performed while wearing a respirator.
It is no secret that exposure to lead is dangerous, but failure to acknowledge this fact can lead to dire consequences such as the damaging of vital organs, permanent organ damage, or even death. However, you shouldn’t have to fear lead if you are properly informed of its dangers and how you can prevent lead poisoning from occurring. It is completely possible to work with lead in a entirely safe environment, but if you have any questions, comments, or concerns regarding lead safety in the workplace, you should talk to your supervisor, or you can contact Safety Partners at 877-723-3021 or contact one of our services!
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