While lead-based paints are no longer allowed in U.S. residences, lead-based products are still widely used in the construction industry. In construction, lead is frequently used for roofs, cornices, tank linings and electrical conduits. It's also used as well as to prevent rust on steel bridges, railways and ships. Despite its popularity on construction sites, lead exposure can be extremely dangerous to workers.
Lead is most commonly absorbed into the body by inhalation. When workers breathe in lead as a dust, fume or mist, their lungs and upper respiratory tract absorb it into the body. When absorbed in high enough doses, lead can be toxic. Chronic overexposure can result in severe damage to the central nervous system, particularly the brain, as well as to the blood-forming, urinary and reproductive systems. Even after just a few days, however, acute lead overexposure can cause acute encephalopathy, a condition affecting the brain that can develop quickly into seizures, coma or even death.
Because of the prevalence of lead used to inhibit rust on steel structures, workers involved in abrasive blasting, welding, cutting or burning on these structures are at the highest risk of lead exposure. Other high-risk employees include those involved in:
- Iron work
- Commercial painting
- Lead-based paint abatement
- Heating and air conditioning maintenance and repair
- Electrical work
- Carpentry, such as renovation and remodeling.
To help prevent these employees from being exposed to toxins, employers can implement a variety of engineering controls designed to reduce lead hazards. One method is to use exhaust ventilation systems such as high-efficiency particulate air vacuums to collect and exhaust toxic fumes or particles. Another way to reduce lead inhalation or ingestion hazards resulting from working with lead-based paint is to encapsulate it with a material that bonds to the surface, such as acrylic or epoxy coating. The most effective way to control this risk, however, is to simply choose alternate materials and chemicals that do not contain lead for construction projects.
If employees must work with lead products, their employers must provide personal protective equipment at no additional cost. Appropriate protective clothing and equipment to limit exposure on construction sites includes:
- Coveralls or other full-body work clothing
- Gloves, hats and shoes or disposable shoe coverlets
- Vented goggles or face shields with protective spectacles or goggles
- Welding or abrasive blasting helmets
For help creating a site specific safety plan that can reduce your employees' risk of chemical exposure, contact Safety Advantage. Our construction safety programs equip safety professionals with the skills and knowledge they need to develop compliance solutions. To learn more, or to sign up for a health and safety training course, visit our website today.