Protecting Construction Workers from Lead Exposure During Demolition

Lead exposure is a potential hazard that all construction crews will face at one point or another. According to OSHA, at least 838,000 workers within the construction sector are exposed to lead on the job. Most commonly, lead exposure occurs through lead dust that is inhaled as workers complete jobs involving this metal. Let’s take a look at the symptoms of lead poisoning, how workers are most commonly exposed and how construction managers can help prevent exposure.

Symptoms of Poisoning from Lead Dust

Lead poisoning, particularly repeated long-term exposure from lead in construction comes with a variety of symptoms. Many are flu-like: nausea, fatigue, headache, abdominal pain, weakness, muscle and joint pain and dizziness. However, there are also a few other symptoms to watch for.

  • Loss of appetite
  • Metallic taste
  • Tremors
  • Hyperactivity, nervousness, irritability, anxiety and other mood changes

Lead in Construction: How are Workers Exposed?

Common wisdom teaches that lead is most prevalent in old paint, which means that it is common to encounter it during renovations on older homes and businesses. However, it isn’t just paint, though old paint is one likely source of lead dust. Lead is also present in solder, particularly copper and tinplate pipe fittings. Workers will find it roofing and related materials as well as in electrical conduits or the linings of large tanks.

Workers who are at the highest risk for lead exposure are those who work on plumbing systems, sanding and sandblasting, welders and steelworkers and those who are using power tools of any kind that do not feature dust collection systems. Leaded glass is another source of lead dust. In particular, plumbers and workers who handle demolition are generally at the highest risk for exposure.

How to Prevent Lead Exposure

The most important thing you can do to protect workers from lead in construction work is to follow the local and federal regulations for safe work practices and safe removal. In Massachusetts, for instance, there are in-depth regulations and standards in place for workers who deal with lead on the job site, including certifications and training for workers who will be designated de-leading professionals.

Beyond the laws in place, there are a few additional things that may be required, but even if they are not required, they’re still a good idea.

  • Personal protective equipment (PPE) is a must. Gloves will keep lead dust off the hands and respirators prevent workers from breathing it in. Proper handling of PPE is also important. Make sure workers remove it before entering the area in which they’ll take a lunch break and make sure that PPE is cleaned regularly.
  • Cleanliness is important. Aside from cleaning PPE, ensure that workers are washing their faces and hands before eating or leaving for the day. Clothing exposed to lead should be laundered properly, including shoes.
  • Invest in proper methods to handle potential lead dust. Ventilation systems, dust collectors and tools that allow you to work using a wet method (like wet sanding) all help reduce the chances of lead becoming airborne.

Of course, the most important way to protect your workers from lead in construction is through awareness. Make sure that you know the signs and symptoms of lead poisoning, how to identify parts of a job site that contain lead, and most importantly, make sure to educate your employees as well!