Case studies

Case study 1 - recycling

A recycling company was fined for failing to protect employees working with lead.  The Court also ordered the company to pay costs totalling £25,483.

Workers were stripping some lead-sheathed copper cabling in sheds with inadequate ventilation, putting them at high risk of lead exposure.  Workers were eating and changing out of their contaminated overalls in the same area and were smoking on site, which raised the risk of them ingesting significant levels of lead.

An investigation found that between October 2008 and July 2009, more than 90 workers were significantly exposed to lead as a result of this process. Six workers showed signs of lead poisoning and two workers needed hospital treatment.

When HSE's appointed doctor carried out tests, 23 workers were found to have significantly high levels of lead in their blood. Of these, six people had symptoms of lead poisoning and were referred to hospital and two were put on chelation therapy.

What went wrong?

HSE inspectors visited the site in April 2009 after an employee complained about insufficient protection when working with lead. During the site visit, HSE found nothing had been done to reduce lead exposure, with inadequate ventilation, face masks or respiratory equipment available.

It also found that although gloves were provided by the company, workers wore their own clothes, potentially spreading lead to other people and their own homes when they left work. The company had not carried out blood tests or other health checks which are legally required when working with lead.

Case study 2 - sheet metal

A sheet metal manufacturing company and its director were fined after workers were exposed to high levels of lead at its factory.

Workers suffered the exposure as they cast molten lead into lead sheeting, sold for various uses including roofing old buildings, such as churches.

Magistrates fined the company £10,000 and the director a further £10,000. The company was also ordered to pay full prosecution costs of £10,556

What went wrong?

The investigation found that the company:

  • failed to provide suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to health created by work involving lead
  • failed to adequately control exposure to lead
  • failed to provide sufficient control measures, including lack of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), no adequate local exhaust ventilation system to remove lead fumes from the workplace, no adequate clothes washing system and no adequate hygiene controls
  • failed to provide employees with suitable information, instruction and training
  • failed to suitably investigate when occupational exposure level limits were exceeded and action levels reached
  • failed to provide air monitoring as regularly as required

Workers could have breathed in lead dust; absorbed the substance into their skin; or ingested it orally, for example when they ate, drank or smoked a cigarette during breaks or even after work hours without washing their hands.

Case study 3 - paint

A company carrying out restoration work was fined £10,000 after workers were poisoned by lead paint. The company failed to identify that lead paint was present and failed to ensure suitable precautions were taken whilst the old paintwork was sanded down and removed. Consequently, workers inhaled and ingested lead dust over several months during the summer of 2008.

The estate had not been fully redecorated since 1908 and workers had not been told that the paint they were sanding down contained harmful lead.  Large amounts of dust were ingested and inhaled by the workers who were wearing ineffective dust masks.

Two workers were hospitalised with abdominal pain and had to be treated with medication which flushed the lead particles out of their system.  Five others were examined and found to have suffered lead poisoning and the project was suspended while the area was cleared.  Dust was also spread to workers' homes, potentially endangering workers' families, from their overalls.

What went wrong?

The company failed to identify that lead paint was present during a renovation project

The HSE Inspector said: 'This case is important as it reminds primary contractors of their responsibility and duty of care to others working on the site - even if they are not directly employed by them.

Exposure to lead can result in significant and debilitating symptoms such as anaemia, nausea and constipation and even nerve, brain and/or kidney damage.

There may be a view that lead is an historic problem, which was dealt with a long time ago. This prosecution shows that this is not the case. Those involved in renovating old buildings need to be particularly vigilant. Once dust or fume is generated from operations such as sanding, paint burning it easily enters the body through normal breathing or swallowing, where it accumulates causing debilitating symptoms.'

Case study 4 - glass maker

A glass maker was fined £3,600 after its premises were found to be contaminated by lead.

An unannounced inspection of the site, which produced lead cut crystal items, found the levels of lead contamination to be above the occupational exposure limit and identified that exposure to lead was not being adequately controlled.

The company pleaded guilty to breaching Regulation 5 of the Control of Lead at Work Regulations 2002 and Regulation 25(2)(b) of the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992. As well as the fine, the company were also ordered to pay £7,000 costs.

What went wrong?

HSE's investigation concluded that the company had not carried out suitable and sufficient risk assessments and that their employees were put at serious risk to their health as exposure to lead was not being adequately controlled. Six improvement notices were served to ensure that the company complied with the law.

The visit also found there wasn't even a place for workers properly to wash their hands or a rest area for workers to have meals. In good weather they would go outside, but otherwise they would have lunch in the factory, greatly increasing the prospect of them ingesting lead.

Case study 5 - tile maker

Nine workers at a ceramic tile factory had levels of lead in their blood above national safety limits putting them at risk of serious health problems.  Tests carried out on staff following HSE's inspection found three female workers had blood levels at or above the suspension limit – one of them significantly higher.  In addition, five women and one man working at the site were found to be above the action level which alerts employers that a worker is approaching the suspension level.

The company pleaded guilty to five breaches of the Control of Lead at Work Regulations 2002 and was fined a total of £35,000 and ordered to pay costs of £23,271.

What went wrong?

HSE's investigations found the company failed to control its workers' exposure to lead and carry out a proper risk assessment for the work. It also did not measure the concentration of lead in the air to which employees were exposed.

The firm also failed to provide medical surveillance for the workers and did not provide them with sufficient information and training.

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Updated: 2023-04-27