The Dangers of Lead in Construction

When working in construction, the presence of lead is always a cause for concern. Recent increases in highway work, bridge repair, lead removal in homes, and residential remodeling have made the potential for lead exposure much more common.

Lead is a metal that can cause major damage to the central nervous system and organs. Even exposure as short as a few days can cause a condition that affects the brain and can quickly develop into seizures, coma, or death. It is extremely important that workers avoid contact and inhalation of lead on the jobsite.

Where is Lead Found?

Lead is a major concern for the construction industry and is found in many widely used products such as lead-based paints, plumbing fixtures, tank linings, electrical fittings and conduits, lead solder, and a number of metal alloys.

The use of many of these products has been restricted, but lead-based paints are still often used on bridges, ships, railways, and other steel structures because of their ability to resist rust and corrosion. Plus, workers involved in remodeling and demolition can be at high risk of exposure to lead in older homes and buildings where lead-based paint was used.

According to OSHA, “workers at the highest risk of lead exposure are those involved in abrasive blasting and welding, cutting, and burning on steel structures.” Some of the many other construction activities that can create lead fumes and dust include:

• Using mortar that contains lead

• Power tool cleaning with and without dust collection systems

• Rivet busting

• Cleanup activities where dry expendable abrasives are used

• Movement and removal of abrasive blasting enclosures

• Manual dry scraping and sanding

• Manual demolition of structures

• Heat-gun applications

• Spray painting with lead-based paint

Protecting Workers

OSHA has set regulations to protect workers from lead exposure. These regulations outline the permissible exposure limit (PEL) and ways to protect workers, including:

• Developing worker protection and lead monitoring programs to minimize the risk of exposure

• Training workers on the hazards, safe work practices, and personal protective equipment (PPE) required for each worksite

• Using engineering controls including exhaust ventilation, HEPA vacuums, and wet methods to reduce lead dust

• Ensuring workers wash hands and face before eating and leaving the worksite, and before drinking, smoking, or applying cosmetics

• Reducing movement of lead away from the worksite by providing clean change areas, protective clothing that can be removed before leaving the worksite, and showers where possible

• Avoiding wearing any protective equipment including work gloves, respiratory protection, and coveralls into eating areas

• Providing hats, shoes or disposable shoe covers, goggles, faceshields with safety glasses or goggles, and welding or abrasive blasting helmets

Breathing lead dust or mists, eating food when hands are dusty, or absorbing lead through the skin all add to lead in the body. Help reduce worker illness caused by exposure to lead in construction, demolition, remodeling, and other industries with the proper programs and protective equipment.

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