Leading the fight for safe and healthy workplaces

You are here

Occupational Lead Exposure

(Adapted from the Washington State Bureau of Labor and Industries)
What is lead?
Lead is a soft, bluish-gray metal found in small amounts throughout the environment. This chemical element has been used almost since the beginning of civilization. Lead can combine with various other substances to form numerous lead compounds. Some modern day uses of lead include manufacturing ammunition, batteries, chemical compounds, explosives, glassware, and metal products. To prevent rust and corrosion, lead is also used in containers and pipes, and most steel bridges are painted with lead-based paint.
Lead in the workplace
These jobs and work activities may have problems with lead exposure:
General Industry:

  •  Lead production or smelting
  •   Brass, copper or lead foundries
  •   Lead fishing weight production
  •   Thermal stripping or sanding of old paint
  •   Welding or cutting of old painted metal
  •   Machining and grinding lead alloys
  •   Battery manufacturing and recycling
  •   Radiator manufacturing and repair
  •   Scrap metal handling
  •   Lead soldering
  •   Indoor firing ranges
  •   Ceramic glaze mixing


Construction Jobs/Tasks:

  •   Home renovation/remodeling
  •   Demolition of old structures
  •   Steel bridge maintenance
  •   Welding or cutting of old painted metal
  •   Thermal stripping or sanding of old paint

Lead away from work
You may carry lead dust home on your work clothes, work shoes, or areas of the body not covered by protective clothing such as hands or hair. Lead can harm the health of others in your home. Young children are very sensitive to lead's harmful effects. If a pregnant woman is exposed to lead, it may harm her unborn child. 

Sources of lead in the environment include:

  •   paint on houses built before 1978 and soil contaminated with paint dust and chips.
  •   drinking water contaminated by lead solder.
  •   soil and air near buildings where people work (or have worked) with lead.
  •   soil in areas where lead-containing pesticides had been used.

Some hobbies expose you to lead. Creating leaded glass pieces, using pottery glazes containing lead, firearm use (especially at indoor ranges), or pouring your own fishing weights may expose you to harmful levels of lead.

Lead and your health
Although the toxic effects of lead have been known for centuries, lead exposure is still widespread in the United States. Overexposure to lead is common in certain industries and jobs. Lead metal can enter your body in two ways:

  1.   You can breathe in lead dust, mist, or fumes.
  2.  You can swallow lead dust if it gets on your hands or face or if it gets in your food, drinks or tobacco.

Once lead gets into your body, it stays there for a long time. Even if you are exposed to small amounts, it can build up in your body over time. Too much lead in your body can damage your brain, nerves, kidneys, and blood cells. Lead can also cause infertility in men and harm the unborn child. Many people with high lead levels do not feel sick or poisoned. These high lead levels can still seriously affect health. The longer you have a high level, the greater the risk of health problems. Damage done by lead may be permanent.

Each person responds to lead differently. Some of the early symptoms of lead poisoning or overexposure may include:
• irritability
• muscle or joint pains
• stomach aches and cramps
• trouble concentrating
• tiredness

It is important to note that it is possible to have an overexposure and not experience any symptoms. If you are exposed to lead and experience any of these symptoms, or suspect you have been overexposed to lead, contact your doctor.

Understanding your blood lead test
The most common test for lead is called the blood lead level, which measures how much lead is in your bloodstream. Blood lead levels are presented as micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (mg/dl).

Factors such as differences in person-to-person susceptibility and how long you have been exposed may affect the blood lead level at which these health problems appear. Speak with your doctor if you have any questions about your blood lead level and your health.

Your employer’sresponsibilities
Under federal regulations (the Lead Standards for General Industry and Construction), employers have a responsibility to ensure that workers are protected from harmful lead exposure. This includes making sure that lead in the air of the workplace is not at hazardous levels (i.e., greater than 50 micrograms per cubic meter [mg/m3] averaged over an eight- hour period).
Your rights as a worker Your employer is responsible for providing you with the following:

  •   A safe and healthful workplace. Your employer is required to comply with standards established to prevent harmful exposure to lead. Your employer must provide protective equipment at no cost to employees.
  •   A copy of air monitoring results (upon request);
  •   A copy of the lead standard (upon request);
  •   Medical monitoring. Your employer must make available blood lead testing, medical exams, and consultations for employees potentially exposed to lead above 30 mg/m3 of lead in the air on any day at work; and
  •   Under certain conditions, you can be transferred to a non- lead exposed job without loss of pay or benefits (i.e., “medical removal”).

Protecting yourself with safe work practices
There are some things you can do right away to protect yourself and your family from lead exposure:

  •   Wash your hands and face before you eat, drink or smoke.
  •   Eat, drink and smoke only in areas free of lead dust and fumes.
  •   Work with your employer to ensure that you are not overexposed to lead in your workplace. Sometimes this may include special ventilation equipment or the use of a properly- fitted respirator.
  •   Avoid stirring up lead-containing dust with dry sweeping or blowing. Wet cleaning and vacuuming are generally safer.
  •   Use separate work clothes and shoes/boots while at work.
  •   Keep your street clothes in a clean place.
  •   Don't wear your work clothes and shoes/boots home.
  •   If possible, shower at work before going home.
  •   Launder your clothes at work. (If you must take work clothes home, wash and dry them separately.)

Additional Resources
Your doctor or other health care provider  See a doctor if you are concerned about lead overexposure for yourself or others in your household. The doctor can arrange for blood lead level testing and help you interpret any exposure and health effects. It is important for your doctor to know about your lead exposure even if you don’t have any symptoms. An occupational physician is trained to recognize diseases associated with work and may be able to diagnose a lead-related disease more readily than a doctor not trained in occupational illnesses.