Making Your Workplace Lead-Safe

There are many actions that can be taken when looking for ways to increase workplace safety across all industries. Certain industries or work environments may require additional measures to ensure workers aren’t being exposed to elements such as lead. 

Risks of Working with Lead

Working with lead can put your health at risk and symptoms can include headaches, stomach pains and anaemia. There are, of course, more serious health risks such as infertility, kidney, nerve and brain damage. The Control of Lead at Work Regulations 2002 (CLAW) places a duty on employers to prevent exposure to lead. Where exposure to lead is not where this is not reasonably practical, the amount of exposure the employee is exposed to lead needs to be monitored.

The human body absorbs lead when you breathe in lead dust, fumes or vapour. This includes swallowing any lead such as during eating, drinking, smoking or bite nails without washing your hands and face where lead is present.

Who is Most at Risk?

Employees who are working in the industrial processes which create lead dust, fume or vapour are most at risk. These types of professions include:

  • Blast removal and burning of old lead paints.
  • Stripping old lead paint from doors or windows.
  • Hot cutting that is done in demolition and dismantling operations.
  • Recovering lead from scrap piles and waste.
  • Lead smelting, refining, alloying and casting.
  • Lead-acid battery manufacturers, including breaking and recycling.
  • Manufacturing lead compounds.
  • Manufacturing leaded-glass.
  • Manufacturing and using pigments, colours and ceramic glazes.
  • Working with metallic lead and alloys containing lead, such as soldering. 
  • Those who paint buildings with materials containing lead.
  • Those who spray vehicles with materials containing lead.
  • Recycling of televisions and computer monitors which contain Cathode Ray Tubes (CRT’s).

How to Make Your Workplace Lead-Safe

  1. The first step to ensuring your workplace is lead-safe is to survey the environment for anything containing lead. 
  2. Review your work processes and workplaces for opportunities to reduce workers’ exposure to lead by reducing the number of people that are exposed. The amount of lead to which they are exposed to and the length of time each worker is exposed to will need to be assessed.
  3. Ensure you are using the right controls. You can check with industry good practise to ensure you are adhering to guidelines.
  4. Ensure the controls are always used when needed. Rules and guidelines but not just be set, they need to be enforced. 
  5. Keep all controls in good working order. This means assessing mechanical controls (eg extraction, respiratory protection), administrative controls (eg supervision, medical surveillance) and operator behaviour (following instructions). 
  6. Show that control is being sustained – keep good records to prove this.
  7. If you are ever in doubt, seek expert help. Consult with an appointed doctor about the medical surveillance which is appropriate for your work activities and workplace. 
  8. Ensure you are providing clean facilities for separate storage of clean and contaminated work clothing.
  9. Provide warm water, mild skin cleansers, and soft paper or fabric towels for employees to dry. Avoid abrasive cleaners as these can cause irritation.
  10. Provide pre-work skin creams as these make it much easier to wash dirt from the skin. You can also provide after-work creams to replace the lost skin oils.

Provide Training and Supervision

Training and supervision are needed to ensure workers are adhering to safety procedures correctly. The aim of the training is to educate employers on the actions they need to take to manage their exposure to lead. As well as employees attending, supervisors and managers should also attend.

During the training employees will understand:

  • The hazards involved in working with lead.
  • How to use dust controls, and how to check that they are working properly. 
  • How to maintain and clean equipment safely.
  • How to look after personal protective equipment (PPE) to effectively limit exposure. 
  • What to do in a situation where something goes wrong in the presence of lead.

During supervising employers need to check workers: 

  • Use the controls and guidelines that are in place.
  • Follow the correct work methods.
  • Turn up for medical surveillance. 
  • Follow the rules on personal hygiene and looking after PPE.

What to do as an Employer if Lead Exposure if Significant?

If the exposure to lead in the workplace is significant, you should:

  • Make necessary arrangements for laundering clothing;
  • Measure the levels of lead in the air and inform employees. If the levels of lead cannot be kept below a certain level, you should provide employees with respiratory protective equipment.
  • You should also measure the level of lead in employees’ bodies via a blood test. This needs to be done by a doctor and the results should be passed onto employees. This adheres to the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 and the Management of Health and Safety Regulations 1999 which require employers to make an assessment of the risks that their employees are exposed to.

If the results of the blood test show high levels of lead, action may need to be taken. The type of action taken will depend on the levels of lead in the bloodstream. Guidance in this area refers to:

  • ‘action’ levels: once blood lead levels reach the action levels, employers must investigate and try to reduce the exposure to lead;
  • ‘suspension’ levels: if levels reach the suspension level despite control measures, doctors will usually decide against continued work with lead. An employer must act on a doctor’s decision, and employees will not be able to work with lead again until it is safe to do so.

The table below outlines the ‘action’ and ‘suspension’ levels for working with lead.

Category Action level Suspension level
General employees 50 ug/dl 60 ug/dl
Women of child-bearing age 25 ug/dl 30 ug/dl
Under 18s 40 ug/dl 50 ug/dl


Health Risk of Lead-Based Paint

Exposure to lead-based paint usually happens from ingestion. Lead-based paint does not present a health hazard as long as the paint is not chipping, flaking, crushed or sanded into dust form.

Low levels of exposure to lead can cause health effects such as learning disabilities and behavioural problems, especially in children. High levels of exposure can lead to lead poisoning and other issues such as anaemia and impaired brain and nervous system functions.

Infants and pregnant women lie in the category of high risk.

How do I Know if My Paint is Lead-Based?

Lead-based paint was mainly used in homes built before 1960 and it was used both internally and on the exterior. If the age of your home fits the profile and it still has some original coats of paint, lead could be present. Lead-based paint tends to be very thick which is another good indicator. Modern household paints do not contain lead and they are not dangerous.

If you suspect your old paint is lead-based and in good condition, you can paint a new coat of paint over the top to seal it in. However, if it’s in bad condition, you’ll need to remove it before redecorating. Make sure you don’t use a method to remove the paint that created dust or fumes, stick to caustic-based liquid strippers or solvents. In large buildings such as those that are industrial, professional will usually be called in to safely remove the paint.