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Toolbox Talk: Lead in Construction

By Feb 15, 2023
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This briefing discusses lead in construction, how to minimize exposure and safety precautions.

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This briefing discusses lead in construction, how to minimize exposure and safety precautions.

Lead exposure is a serious issue that many workers face every day. Lead exposure can occur during a variety of job activities, as it is commonly found in a wide range of materials including paints and other coatings, lead mortars and base metals, which may be welded on or abrasive blasted. Lead presents a potentially serious occupational health hazard when these particulates become airborne. Common jobs on a construction site that might expose a worker to lead include:

  • Renovating or demolishing structures that have lead-painted surfaces.
  • Removing lead-based paint or spray painting with lead-based paint.
  • Sandblasting steel structures painted with lead.
  • Grinding, cutting or torching metal surfaces painted with lead.
  • Welding, cutting or removing pipes, joints or ductwork that contain or are painted with lead.
  • Lead soldering
  • Cutting or stripping lead-sheathed cable.
  • Cleaning up sites where there is
    lead dust.

Exposure occurs through inhalation of lead dust, fumes or mist and ingestion of lead dust on food, cigarettes, chewing tobacco and makeup.

Minimizing Exposure

How can worker exposure to lead be minimized? Cal/OSHA requires employers on job sites that might contain lead to recognize the potential hazard. For example, painted surfaces must be presumed to contain lead until all layers of the paint are sampled and analyzed. The detection of any amount of lead in the paint will trigger numerous requirements, even for common tasks such as drywall demolition and manual paint scraping and sanding. The employer is required to conduct air sampling to determine the exposure to lead during these and other tasks that could result in lead exposure. Until actual exposures are determined, workers are required to wear respirators appropriate to the task. Detailed requirements are published in the Cal/OSHA standard for lead in construction: https://bit.ly/3GyAwEm

Proper Training 

All workers who may be exposed must be trained in lead hazards. The results of air sampling are used to determine if workers are exposed to lead above the action level (AL) of 30 micrograms per cubic meter of air or above the permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 50 micrograms of lead per cubic meter of air, averaged over an 8-hour shift. Exposures above the AL or PEL will trigger additional requirements including engineering controls, proper housekeeping, washing facilities for hands and faces, additional worker training, respiratory protection, medical monitoring and additional air sampling. The employer must have a written compliance plan.

Safety Precautions

  • Use safe work practices such as wetting down paints and coatings to keep dust out of the air.
  • Change clothes and wash up before eating, drinking or smoking. Eat, drink and smoke only in clean areas.
  • Use personal protective equipment such as gloves, special clothing and a respirator.
  • Make sure the respirator fits and is worn and maintained properly.
  • Change clothes and wash up before going home. Lead dust on clothes or in the car could expose family members and pets to health issues, and children are more susceptible to lead than adults.

High Lead Exposure

Lead may negatively affect the circulatory system, nervous system, kidneys and reproductive organs. A worker who is exposed to lead above the AL must have a blood test to determine the amount of lead in their blood. If test results indicate that the worker has been overexposed to lead, then they must be removed from work. The employer must maintain the worker's earnings, seniority and benefits during medical removal.

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