Health risks of working with lead - handling lead powder compounds

Guidance for employers on how to eliminate or reduce health and safety risks when handling lead powder compounds at the workplace.


Health and safety risks

Lead is a naturally occurring metal, which can be made into a variety of lead compounds.

A lead process can include a number of different processes involving leading, for example, handling dry lead compounds. Lead process work can result in lead exposure.

Solid lead presents little or no risk to people, but it becomes a health risk when processed in a way that makes it more likely to be taken into the body.

Lead powders can be inhaled as dust. They can also be ingested, for example when a person's hands come into contact with lead powders through touching lead dust on surfaces or contaminated clothing in the work environment, and then they eat, drink or smoke.

Lead is not absorbed through the skin, except for some organic lead compounds that are not covered by Part 4.3 (Lead) of the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Regulations. For more information about working with organic lead compounds, see Part 4.1 of the OHS Regulations and Compliance code: Hazardous substances.

Lead is known as a cumulative poison. When it enters the body it circulates in the blood, and is slowly excreted through the urine. Some lead can remain in the body where it is mainly stored in the bones. The body can get rid of lead naturally over time, but if the amount of lead that enters the body is faster than the rate it is excreted, then lead levels will build over time.

Early signs of high lead levels in the body can include:

  • headaches
  • tiredness
  • irritability
  • nausea
  • stomach pains
  • anaemia, a condition where there is not enough red cells or of oxygen-carrying haemoglobin in the blood, resulting in paleness and weariness
  • weight loss

Continued exposure to lead can cause far more serious conditions such as:

  • kidney damage
  • nerve and brain damage
  • lead palsy, a type of paralysis of the extensor muscles of the forearm

A developing unborn child is particularly at risk from exposure to lead, especially in the early weeks of pregnancy. Lead can pass from a mother to her unborn child. Lead can damage a developing baby’s nervous system as well as affect behaviour and intelligence. A female employee engaged in a lead process is to be treated as being of reproductive capacity, unless she provides her employer with a written statement advising the contrary.

Legal duties

An employer must, so far as is reasonably practicable, eliminate any risk associated with exposure to lead.

If it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate a risk associated with exposure to lead, the employer must reduce the risk so far as is reasonably practicable.

An employer must ensure that an applicant who applies for employment with the employer in a lead process is given 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 an employee first starts work in a lead process over which an employer has control, the employer must ensure the employee is given information in relation to the need for, and details of, medical examinations and biological monitoring.

Employers have a duty to arrange a medical examination and biological monitoring for all employees before they first start lead-risk work. Lead-risk work means work performed in a lead process that is reasonably likely to cause the blood lead level of the employee to exceed. The frequency of these duties will differ if the employees are women of reproductive capacity, women of not reproductive capacity or a man.

For employer duties related to health monitoring and biological monitoring refer to Subdivision 3, Part 4.3 (Lead) of the OHS Regulations.

Employers have a duty to ensure employees are not exposed to an excess of airborne concentration of lead dust, mist or fumes in the employee's breathing zone.

Employees have a general duty to take reasonable care for their own health and safety, and that of others who may be affected by their work. They also have a duty to cooperate with their employer’s efforts to make the workplace safe. Employees have specific duties when they have been in any area where a lead process is undertaken at the workplace.

Control of risks

Hierarchy of control

Employers must, so far as reasonably practicable, eliminate any risk associated with exposure to lead.

If it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate a risk associated with exposure to lead, employers must reduce the risk, so far as is reasonably practicable by:

  • substituting lead with:
    • a substance that is less hazardous, or
    • a less hazardous form of lead, or
  • isolating the source of exposure to lead, or
  • using engineering controls to reduce exposure to lead, or
  • a combination of these risk control measures

Administrative and engineering controls and personal protective equipment

When the hierarchy of control has been applied (as in Hierarch of control), so far as is reasonably practicable, any remaining risk must be reduced by using administrative or engineering controls. If a risk still remains, it must be controlled by providing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) to employees at risk.

Employers must not rely on administrative or engineering controls or PPE unless they have controlled risk with the hierarchy of control so far as reasonably practicable.

Administrative controls can include:

  • reducing dust exposure during handling such as by handling powders in plastic bags
  • use of a water based product
  • rolling up empty waste bags within the LEV and then dispose of in a sealed plastic bag attached to or within the LEV enclosure
  • providing change and wash facilities that prevent the spread of lead contamination from the work area
  • locating change and wash facilities close to the work area, and providing washbasins, soap and nailbrush and a means of separating work and personal clothing
  • providing a lunch area that is separated from the lead process area and keep it clean
  • ensuring employees remove their work clothes before entering the lunchroom
  • ensuring hands are washed before eating, drinking or smoking
  • providing laundering facilities for overalls on-site—do not take contaminated overalls home
  • if using a commercial laundry, dampening contaminated overalls, placing them in a sealed labelled plastic bag and telling the laundry that they are contaminated with lead

Engineering controls can include:

  • installing local exhaust ventilation (LEV) to partially enclose hoppers, chutes or areas where powders are added or pre-weighed
  • cleaning up using a wet method or vacuum cleaner fitted with a HEPA filter—do not dry sweep or use compressed air to clean dusty contaminated surfaces

PPE can include:

  • using a respirator (P1 minimum) where LEV is not practicable
  • wearing overalls or an apron that remain in the lead process area to avoid spread of contamination

An employer must review and, if necessary, revise any measures implemented to control risks associated with exposure to lead.

More information