Preventing Lead Exposure

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Lead is a bluish-gray material with a low melting point. It can bend and take on different shapes easily, and it is also corrosion-resistant. Therefore, it has many uses in several different industries. It is used in batteries, soldering, paints and coatings, auto manufacturing, and printing. The risk of lead exposure also exists from hobbies such as stained-glass work, recreational target shooting, melting lead for fishing weights, and ceramic glazing.

One of the most common uses of lead in the past was in the paint industry. It was used as a pigment. However, it was also useful to speed drying time, increase durability, and resist moisture. In the late 1950s manufactures began voluntarily reducing the lead content in most residential paints. In 1978, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) limited residential paint lead content to 600 parts per million (ppm). In 2008, the CPSC reduced the lead limit to 90 ppm.

The OSHA standards on lead health hazards are 1910.1025. Lead is measured in micrograms per cubic meter of air. The permissible exposure limit (PEL) of lead is 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air over an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA). However, the action level (AL) of lead is 30 micrograms per cubic meter of air over an 8-hour TWA. The OSHA standards state if lead is present in any amount in the workplace, then employers must determine if workers may be exposed to airborne lead. This determination is made through air sampling while the workers are performing their job. If the results are below the action level, no additional monitoring is needed. If the results are above the AL, but below the PEL, monitoring must be completed every six months. If the results are above the AL and the PEL, air monitoring must be completed every three months.

Many employees experience lead exposure when disturbing old paint (particularly paints applied prior to 1978) and through remodeling projects. It is imperative to take steps to protect workers from lead exposure. Please see below for information regarding the hazards of lead and ways to protect workers.

How Lead Enters the Body:

  • Inhalation
    • Fumes
    • dust
  • Ingestion
    • Not washing hands properly
    • Eating food
    • Drinking beverages
    • Smoking cigarettes

Long Term Health Problems from High Lead Levels/Exposure:

  • Acute encephalopathy (disease of the brain);
  • Seizures;
  • Coma;
  • Death from cardio-respiratory arrest;
  • Damage to kidneys & adverse changes in kidney function;
  • Damage and stiffness of muscles;
  • Weakened bones;
  • Damage to blood-forming organs;
  • Damage to the reproductive system; and
  • Hypertension.

OSHA Standard (1910.1025) Requirements for Employers (AL = 30 micrograms per cubic meter of air over an 8-hour TWA and PEL = 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air over an 8-hour TWA):

  • Develop a written compliance program.
  • Description of job/work activities that involve lead.
  • Specific procedures for employer compliance with the requirements.
  • Report of the procedures/processes considered in meeting the PEL.
  • Air monitoring data.
  • Schedule for putting the program into action.
  • Work practice program.
  • Administrative control schedule.
  • Procedures in place to notifying affected employees on contractor and multi-contractor sites.
  • Review and update the program annually.
  • Inform employees when lead exposure at any level is possible.
  • Medical evaluations.
    • Required for each employee exposed to 31 or more micrograms per cubic meter of air for 31 days or more per year.
      • Lead blood levels must be taken every six months.
      • Lead blood levels must be taken every two months if 41 or greater micrograms per 100 grams of whole blood.
    • Annual medical evaluation if blood level is at or above 40 micrograms per 100 grams of whole blood.
    • Immediate medical evaluation is required if the employee has developed signs/symptoms of lead poisoning.
    • When an employee wishes to obtain a medical opinion about lead exposure and their ability to have a healthy child.
    • Immediately if the worker has difficulty breathing during respirator use or a fit test.

Signs and Symptoms of Lead Poisoning/Overexposure:

  • Headache;
  • Fatigue;
  • Sleep disturbance;
  • Joint pain;
  • Myalgia;
  • Anorexia;
  • Constipation;
  • Abdominal pain;
  • Nausea/vomiting;
  • Loss of appetite;
  • Irritability; and
  • Hyperactivity.

Safety Controls to Prevent Lead Exposure:

  • Engineering controls
    • Ventilation
    • HEPA vacuum systems
    • Wet methods
  • Administrative controls
    • Wash hands/face
    • No eating or drinking
    • No handling of contact lenses
    • No application of cosmetics
    • Keep hands away from the eyes, nose, and mouth
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
    • Eye/face protection
    • Gloves
    • Masks
    • Respirators
      • If engineering & work practice controls are unable to bring exposure levels below the PEL
      • Follow OSHA’s respiratory protection standards 1910.134
    • Protective suits
    • Boots
      • PPE must be removed at end of work shift
      • Removed in designated area solely for that purpose
      • Place contaminated PPE in a closed container
      • The employer must provide for cleaning, laundering or disposal
      • Shower facilities were applicable
      • Separate and safe designated eating areas

Employee Training:

  • Lead and its uses
  • PEL and AL
  • Routes of entry
  • Effects of overexposure
  • Signs and symptoms of overexposure
  • Proper use of engineering and work practice/administrative controls
  • PPE including how to properly wear it, use it, care for it, clean it, remove it, limitations, and disposal


KEMI does not assume liability for the content of information contained herein. Safety and health remain your responsibility. This information is to be used for informational purposes only and not intended to be exhaustive or a substitute for proper training, supervision or manufacturers’ instructions/recommendations. KEMI, by publication of this information, does not assume liability for damage or injury arising from reliance upon it. Compliance with this information is not a guarantee or warranty that you will be in conformity with any laws or regulations nor does it ensure the absolute safety of any person, place or object, including, but not limited to, you, your occupation, employees, customers or place of business.