Lead in Construction

Lead in Construction

leadIn the construction industry, lead exposure is a serious issue that many workers face every day.  Lead exposure can occur during a variety of job activities.  Lead is common 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 the lead-containing 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 that are painted with lead.
  • Grinding, cutting, or torching metal surfaces that are painted with lead.
  • Welding, cutting, or removing pipes, joints, or ductwork that contain lead or are painted with lead.
  • Lead soldering.
  • Cutting or stripping lead-sheathed cable.
  • Cleaning up sites where there is lead dust.

Exposure to lead occurs through breathing of lead dust, fumes, or mist and by ingestion of lead dust on cigarettes, chewing tobacco, make-up, or food.

How can worker exposure to lead be minimized?  Employers of job sites that might contain lead are required by Cal/OSHA 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, manual paint scraping, and manual paint sanding.  The employer is required to conduct air sampling to determine the exposure to lead during these tasks and during other tasks that could result in lead exposure.  Until actual exposures are determined, workers are required to wear respirators that are appropriate to the task.  Detailed requirements are published in the Cal-OSHA standard for lead in construction.

All workers who may be exposed to lead must be trained in the hazards of lead.  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 hand and face washing, additional worker training, respiratory protection, medical monitoring, and additional air sampling.  The employer must have a written compliance plan.