The dangers of working with lead and what employers can do about them

Historically, lead is a material that has been widely used in the construction industry. In decades gone by, lead-based paints were a common feature as were lead pipes and roof flashings. However, studies have since shown it to be a substance that can cause significant physical harm, which means steps have to be taken to either eradicate its use or, where it already exists, protect those who work closely with it.

So, what are the risks of working with lead and how can we ensure everyone’s heath is adequately looked after?

What are the dangers of working with lead?

The Health and Safety Executive has published guidelines on working with lead, which outline some of the issues that can be caused by extended exposure to the substance. These include headaches, tiredness, weight loss, constipation, infertility and even damage to the kidneys, nerves and brain.

There are plenty of ways lead can enter your body, for example via the stripping or blast removal of old lead paint, which creates dust, fumes and vapour. In such circumstances, it can be easy to breathe it in or to swallow some if it gets transferred from your hands – perhaps when you’re eating, drinking, smoking or taking medication.

What steps should employers take to protect their workers?

There is a Control of Lead at Work Regulation which describes some of the ways employers can minimise their workers’ risks to lead exposure. These include:

  • Fume and dust extraction to remove as many lead particles as possible from the environment.
  • The provision of personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves, goggles and disposable overalls for all employees on site.
  • The use of different materials such as lead-free roof flashing, either to replace existing work or for new-build projects.
  • Washing facilities to be provided on site so that all workers can clean their hands and faces before they eat, drink, smoke etc.
  • The provision of a break area well away from the work site to reduce the risk of contamination.
  • Staff at all levels to undergo regular training as to the protocols involved when working with lead.
  • The fostering of a culture of accountability where employees are encouraged to point out potential problems before they start, as well as keep a close eye on their colleagues for any signs of being adversely affected due to lead exposure.

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