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Lead at work

Advice for employees on exposure to lead at work and the health effects of lead and monitoring to ensure acceptable lead blood levels.

Date: June 1, 2013
Keycode: 053/01/05.13
Publication type: Information About
Industries: Manufacturing, Construction
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Description

This information shares advice for employees on exposure to lead at work and the health effects of lead and monitoring to ensure acceptable lead blood levels.Lead is a poison that can be absorbed into the body and can become a health risk to workers.

Lead at work

This guidance provides information for employees on exposure to lead at work, the health effects of lead and monitoring to ensure acceptable blood lead levels.

Background

Lead is a poison that can be absorbed into the body. Solid lead, in itself, presents little or no risk to people. However, when lead is processed in a way that produces lead dust, fumes or mist (eg through grinding or heating), it can become a health risk. Lead poisoning can occur from exposure to pure lead, lead alloys such as solder or brass and inorganic lead compounds such as lead oxide.

Part 4.4 of the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2007 imposes specific legal responsibilities on employers and employees for the identification, monitoring and control of lead-risk tasks.

Are you working with lead?

Lead is used in a range of processes and industries and can include:

  • lead smelting, refining, alloying and casting
  • casting or machine grinding of lead alloys
  • manufacturing dry lead compounds
  • soldering with metallic lead and lead containing alloys
  • ammunition and explosives manufacture
  • manufacture or use of lead pigments or ceramic glazes
  • pewter jewellery and badge making
  • spray painting with lead-based paint
  • dismantling of lead-acid batteries
  • radiator repair if exposure to lead dust or fumes may occur
  • removal of lead-based paint.

How is lead absorbed into the body?

Lead is typically absorbed into the body by ingestion and inhalation. Lead particles can be ingested when hands come into contact with lead, including contaminated clothing in the work environment. Lead can also be absorbed into the body when airborne lead dust, fumes or mist are inhaled.

To minimise the ingestion of lead, do not eat, drink, chew gum or smoke in any area where lead processes are being carried out and wash your hands and face after working with lead, especially before eating, drinking or smoking.  

Your employer must provide you with an eating and drinking area that, so far as is reasonably practicable, cannot be contaminated with lead from any lead process. Your employer must also, so far as is reasonably practicable, provide and maintain changing and washing facilities to:

  • minimise secondary lead exposure from contaminated clothing, and
  • minimise ingestion of lead, and
  • avoid the spread of lead contamination.

How is the amount of lead measured in the body?

If you work in a lead process, you may be required to have regular blood tests to determine the amount of lead in the blood. This is known as biological monitoring. It involves having a small blood sample taken and then analysed under the supervision of a registered medical practitioner. You may also be required to attend medical examinations with a registered medical practitioner.

When is biological monitoring required?

When your job involves work in a lead process and your blood lead level is reasonably likely to rise above 1.45 micromole per litre (µmol/L), or 0.48 µmol/L for females of reproductive capacity, (a 'lead-risk job'), your employer must arrange regular blood lead testing and medical examinations for you.

Note: Females are assumed to be of reproductive capacity unless you otherwise advise your employer in writing.

When you apply for a job in a lead process, your prospective employer must provide you with information about the health risks and toxic effects associated with lead exposure and the need for and details of medical examinations and biological monitoring.

Before you start work in a lead-risk job, your employer must arrange for a medical examination and biological monitoring for you before you commence work and arrange for biological monitoring within one month after you commence work.

How often is biological monitoring required?

WorkSafe Diagram 

WorkSafe Diagram 

What happens if blood lead levels are excessive?

Your employer must immediately remove you from a lead-risk job if biological monitoring reveals your blood lead level is at or more than:

  • 2.41 µmol/L for females not of reproductive capacity and males
  • 0.97 µmol/L for females of reproductive capacity
  • 0.72 µmol/L for females who are pregnant or breastfeeding and must provide for a medical examination within seven days after removal.

Your employer must also immediately remove you from a lead-risk job if after a medical examination, it is the opinion of a registered medical practitioner that you must be removed from that job.  

When am I allowed back to work in a lead-risk job?

You can return to work in a lead-risk job when:

  • you have been re-examined by a registered medical practitioner who certifies you are fit to return to the lead-risk job, and
  • your blood lead level is less than –
    • 1.93 µmol/L for females not of reproductive capacity and males; and
    • 0.48 µmol/L for females of reproductive capacity.

Your employer's duties

Your employer must eliminate any risk associated with exposure to lead so far as is reasonably practicable. If elimination is not reasonably practicable, your employer must reduce the risk so far as is reasonably practicable by:

  • identifying whether your job is a 'lead-risk job'
  • controlling any risks associated with exposure to lead
  • reviewing risk control measures
  • keeping the lead process area clean
  • providing washing and changing facilities
  • providing an appropriate eating and drinking area that cannot be contaminated with lead from any lead process
  • providing laundering or disposal of protective clothing and work clothing that is likely to be contaminated with lead dust
  • arranging medical examinations and biological monitoring as required
  • providing necessary supervision, instruction, information and training.

You can minimise your exposure to lead by:

  • using the control measures provided by your employer
  • wearing personal protective clothing (including a respirator) when required
  • removing lead contaminated clothing and washing your hands and face before eating, drinking and smoking
  • storing food, drink and tobacco away from the lead process area
  • never eating, drinking or smoking in a lead process area
  • washing and changing into clean clothing before going home
  • attending medical appointments. 

You also have a general duty to take reasonable care for your own health and safety, and that of others who may be affected by your work, and to cooperate with your employer's efforts to make the workplace safe.

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