By: Thomas H. Welby Thomas H. Welby Published: November 2006

Safety Policy: Protection Against Lead Exposure: The Basics

Man’s use of lead goes back thousands of years (the oldest known lead mine, in Turkey, dates from about 6500 B.C.). It’s a wonderfully versatile material — abundant, cheap, malleable, resistant to corrosion, has a low melting point, and holds pigments well.

Unfortunately, as became fully appreciated not many years ago, the ingestion of lead has serious adverse consequences to human health. The Romans’ use of lead in their aqueducts and domestic vessels is thought to have been a contributing cause to the fall of their empire. Lead was used in plumbing mains in New York City into the 20th century, and had a long career as an air pollutant, after tetraethyl lead was introduced as a gasoline additive in the early 1920s.

Major milestones have been achieved in reducing the general population’s exposure to lead, notably the ban on the use of lead-based paints in residential applications in the mid-1970s, and a phaseout of leaded gasoline, which was essentially complete by the mid-1990s.

However, 30 years after the ban on leaded paint in residences, more than 2% of America’s children have dangerously elevated blood lead levels (“BLL’s”) and lead remains a primary hazard to children, especially in the “Rust Belt,” from Massachusetts and New York west to Minnesota. While it’s widely known that children are most at risk from lead exposure, lead ingested early in life can remain in the body (chiefly in the bones) and cause symptoms many years later, often when an adult undergoes health stresses, such as pregnancy or illness.

In the construction industry, if all uses of lead-based paints were discontinued tomorrow, exposure would remain a substantial hazard for at least 25 to 50 years. Moreover, lead-based paints — resistant to wear and corrosion — continue in widespread use outdoors, and in particular on bridges and elevated roadways and in tunnels.

Construction practices that aim at reducing overall environmental pollution from (among other hazards) lead-based paints being removed from bridges and other metal structures, such as portable containment structures, have had the unintended consequence of exacerbating the dangers to workers.

For the first 20 years of the history of OSHA, the construction industry “enjoyed” a laxer standard in protecting employees from airborne lead — a standard permitting lead concentrations up to 200 micrograms per cubic meter, versus a general industry standard of 50 ?g/m3. In the late 1980s, a spate of lead poisonings on bridge, tunnel, and elevated-highway construction sites, and the discovery that many such sites had astronomic exposure levels, against which respirator use alone was woefully insufficient, led to a tightening of the construction standards in 1993.

Lead risks are greatest to workers who carry out tasks involving abrasive blasting, sanding, burning, cutting and welding. Spray-painting using lead-based paint, the manual removal (by scraping) of lead-based paint, and demolition also carry elevated risks. And, even where containment structures are employed, other trades working outside the containment structure may also be at risk.

While the use of respirators, protective clothing, and other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) are important elements of protecting employees against lead exposure, these must not be your first line of defense.

While lead exposure is a stubborn, long-term problem in construction to which there is no simple, one-shot solution, current approaches emphasize xstress

OSHA requires you to train your employees concerning lead-related hazards.

Construction workers, it’s well known, too often think of themselves as being tougher than they are, which leads them to go down into unshored trenches, walk about on rooftops without fall protection, and otherwise place their lives and health in danger.

It’s probably not a bad idea, in instructing your workforce about the hazards of lead, to remind them that lead dust is all too easily borne away from the jobsite and into workers’ cars and homes on their clothing, and places family members (and above all young children) at risk of serious health problems.

Thomas H. Welby is a licensed professional engineer, as well as an attorney and managing partner of Welby, Brady & Greenblatt, LLP, a construction law firm with its main office in White Plains. Articles in this series are for general guidance only, and should not be relied upon as providing all information necessary for compliance with OSHA and other legal requirements.

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