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May 25, 2016
Workers can do a lot to protect themselves and their families from lead

When it comes to lead, America has tried to reduce exposures. Lead-based residential paints and lead additives in gasoline were widely used until the 1970s, when they were phased out. Unfortunately, this highly toxic metal has so many uses, it has never been eliminated completely. It’s still widely used in lead-acid batteries, munitions, and paints used on bridges and other steel structures.

Workers who may be exposed to lead need to know its hazards and how to protect themselves.

Background on lead safety

Who needs to be trained? Both General Industry Safety Orders Section 5198 and Construction Safety Orders Section 1532.1 require workers who are occupationally exposed to lead to be trained in the hazards of lead exposure and protective measures.

Why train workers in lead safety? Workers need to realize that they could harm not just themselves but also their loved ones if they don’t take appropriate precautions.

Basics of lead safety

Instructions to Trainer: In addition to the information below, workers must be familiar with the requirements of the applicable standard (general industry or construction). Make sure you provide them with a copy and address its major points.

Lead is an amazing metal. It can be hammered into thin sheets or drawn into fine wires. It’s corrosion-resistant and easy to work with. Historically, it’s been used in makeup and paint, piping and plumbing, and as a gasoline additive.

Although it’s been phased out of many consumer uses, lead is still mined and smelted in the United States and is found in many municipal plumbing systems, bridge and structural steel paints and coatings, firearms ammunition, soldering compounds, and lead-acid batteries.

Practice Tip

Remind workers that if they develop symptoms of lead poisoning, you must remove them from their job—another reason to carefully observe all safe work practices.

Lead toxicity

Unfortunately, lead dust (finely ground particles of lead) or fume (airborne droplets of liquid lead) exposures are dangerous. Lead is highly toxic when inhaled or eaten. Low-dose exposures can affect your appetite and leave you constipated, sick to your stomach, pale and weak, tired, nervous and irritable, and with an unpleasant metallic taste in your mouth.

If that’s not enough, low-dose lead exposures can cause insomnia, headaches, muscle and joint pain or soreness, tremors, numbness, dizziness, and hyperactivity. If you work with or around lead and have any of these symptoms, report them immediately. Lead poisoning is treatable if it’s caught early.

Over time, untreated lead poisoning can permanently damage your blood-forming, nervous, urinary, and reproductive systems. The reproductive damage can affect both men and women. It can impair women’s fertility and cause abnormal menstrual cycles. For men, overexposure may reduce the sex drive or cause impotence or sterility.

If either parent has been overexposed to lead, there’s a greater chance a fetus will suffer miscarriage, stillbirth, birth defects, mental retardation, behavioral disorders, or infant death. Lead is also dangerous to the children you may already have—if you carry it home on your clothing, they can be exposed to it, and children can suffer permanent damage from much lower exposures than adults.

Protect yourself

Clearly, it’s important to protect yourself and your family against exposure to lead at work. Here’s what you can do: Change your clothes. If you work with lead, your lead-exposed clothes will stay at work to avoid spreading contamination. Change from street clothes into work clothes when you arrive, and back into street clothes before you leave. Don’t spread lead contamination into the area where your street clothes are.

Shower. Before you leave work, remove your lead-contaminated work clothes, and then hit the shower so you don’t carry lead home in your hair or on your skin.

Wash up at work. If you have lead dust on your hands and face, you can transfer that when you eat or smoke. To prevent contamination of food, drinks, and cigarettes, keep them in the break areas provided and eat, drink, and smoke in these areas only after you have washed your hands and face well. Remove loose dust from your clothes with a vacuum or wipe. Never shake off the dust or blow it off with compressed air because this can spread lead dust around.

Practice good housekeeping. Don’t let lead dust or contamination accumulate in the work area. The work area should be cleaned frequently using methods that don’t generate dust, like wet wipes and HEPA vacuums. Don’t use compressed air, dry sweeping, or shoveling to clean lead-contaminated dust and debris.

Wear your gear. If you have been issued a respirator, make sure you wear it as instructed. It will prevent you breathing lead dust and fumes. Also make sure that you keep it clean, and change your filters on schedule.


Lead is extremely useful—but also extremely dangerous to you and your family. It’s important to follow all safe work practices so you can have a long career and healthy children.

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