Lead: Safety basics

Understand the health effects of lead and find guidance for managing lead risks in the workplace.


Health effects of lead

Lead is a poison that can be absorbed into the body through exposure to pure lead, lead alloys such as solder or brass and inorganic lead compounds such as lead oxide.

It can be inhaled through dust, fumes or mist. It can also be swallowed when, for example, your hands come into contact with lead (such as through contaminated clothing in the work environment) and then you eat, drink or smoke.

Lead can cause both immediate and long-term health problems. High levels of lead in your body can cause headaches, tiredness, irritability, nausea, stomach pains and anaemia. Continued exposure can cause far more serious symptoms, such as kidney damage, nerve and brain damage, paralysis, lead palsy and even death. 

Lead exposure may also adversely affect the reproductive systems in both women and men. A developing unborn child is particularly at risk, especially in the early weeks before a pregnancy becomes known.

Lead processes

Solid lead is little or no risk to people, although it can become a risk when it is processed in a way that, for example, produces lead dust, fumes, or mist.

Lead processes are defined in regulation 178 of the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 and include a wide range of activities. Some of these are:

  • lead smelting, refining, alloying and casting
  • casting or machine grinding lead alloys
  • manufacturing dry lead compounds
  • soldering with metallic lead and lead-containing alloys
  • manufacturing or using lead pigments or ceramic glazes
  • making pewter jewellery or badges
  • ammunition and explosives manufacture
  • working with lead based paint, such as removing it or spray painting with it
  • dismantling lead-based batteries
  • radiator repairs

Managing lead risk in the workplace