Construction hazardous substances: Lead
Lead can be found in construction workplaces. It is commonly used as a specialist material (eg roof flashings) and present in older buildings (eg in paint or pipework). Lead can cause serious health problems such as anaemia or kidney disease and published research has linked exposure to a small number of occupational cancers. This page tells you how to control these risks and why.
What you must do
The Control of Lead at Work (CLAW) Regulation 2002 says you must protect employees against the risks from lead. Follow the Assess, Control and Review model. Pay particular attention to:
Identify and assess: Identify those tasks where you are going to use lead or create lead dust or fume. Pay particular attention to situations where significant exposure is expected. This may include:
- stripping or preparing leaded paint from doors, windows etc. Lead pigments were widely used in paints for homes, schools, offices etc until the 1960s. It was not removed from all commonly used paint until the early 1980s. Therefore, it can be found underneath existing paintwork in older buildings
- working with lead on roofs
- hot cutting of lead or leaded paint in demolition and dismantling operations
- blast removal of old leaded paint
Follow the controls below. You will have to consider additional controls for particularly high risk tasks like abrasive blasting.
Prevent: Where possible think about eliminating or reducing the amount of lead used or contact with it. Consider:
- using different materials
- leaving in place paintwork that is in good condition and / or covered by non-leaded paint. Make a key for a new paint layer by using wet abrasive paper. Only strip back old paint if it is flaking, chipping, giving off dust/ particles or is a risk to children
- using different work methods, eg cold / mechanical cutting instead of hot cutting
- using lower temperatures. Do not over heat leaded paint by using blow lamps or gas torches. Keep hot air guns and infrared equipment below 500 oC
Control: Even if you minimise some of the risk this way, you may still do other work that might involve exposure to lead. Control the risk by:
Work Method – limit the amount of dust or fume you create. Consider using one or a combination of:
- chemical paint stripper
- wet abrasive paper and scraper
- on-tool extraction with an H or M class extraction unit
- infrared equipment or a hot air gun and scraper
- Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) – wear RPE with an assigned protection factor of 20 (eg FFP3 disposable mask or half mask with P3 filter). For longer duration work consider powered RPE with the same protection (eg TH2 powered hood / helmet). Make sure any RPE is compatible with other protective equipment. Fit testing is needed for tight fitting masks.
- Preventing spread – use additional controls to prevent dust or fume spreading – eg plastic sheeting to separate the work and cover surfaces. Remove or protect soft furnishings. Thoroughly wash / clean surfaces and dispose of contaminated waste safely. Pay particular attention to keeping children and pregnant women away from the work area.
- Clothing – wear disposable coveralls and use washable (eg PVC) or disposable gloves if there is likely to be lead dust contamination. Remove these when leaving the work area. Do not wear them in rest areas and keep them away from personal clothing worn outside of work. Avoid washing contaminated clothing at home.
- Washing – washing is an important control. In many cases, standard site welfare facilities will be enough. Workers should ensure they:
- wash hands and forearms before eating, drinking, smoking, using the telephone, taking medication etc
- avoid hand-mouth contact when in contaminated areas
- Breaks – avoid contamination by taking rest and meal breaks away from the work area.
Train: Workers need to know how to use the controls properly. They also need to be aware of the risks from lead. Make sure they have read and understood the guidance Lead and You.
Industry guidance on removing old lead paint can be found on the website of:
Supervise: Ensure that controls such as work methods, PPE and welfare are effective and used by the workers. Anyone wearing tight fitting RPE needs to be clean shaven and face fit tested.
Maintain: Make sure that there is enough water, plastic sheeting, clothing etc. and equipment is properly maintained.
Monitor: Appropriate medical surveillance is needed if workers have significant exposure.
What you should know
You can absorb lead into your body when you breathe in lead dust or fume. You can also swallow lead dust and debris for example if you eat, drink, smoke or bite your nails without washing your hands or face. Any lead you absorb will circulate in your blood. Your body gets rid of a small amount of lead each time you go to the toilet, but some will stay in your body, stored mainly in your bones. It can stay there for many years without making you ill.
If the level of lead in your body gets too high, it can cause symptoms such as headaches, tiredness, irritability, anaemia or stomach pains. Continued uncontrolled exposure can cause more serious problems like kidney, nerve and brain damage, and even possibly cancer.