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Working with lead

Find out more about what lead is, the types of work that can expose you to lead, the symptoms of lead absorption and the steps you can take to stay safe when you're working around lead.

What is lead and how can I be exposed?

Lead is a metal obtained from mining lead ore, which is used in a number of forms including pure metal, alloys (mixtures of metals) and as lead compounds. It has many uses including vehicle batteries, solder, paint pigments and as a stabiliser to protect plastic from sun damage.

The definition of lead and a list of lead process activities are provided in Section 392 of the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011.

Some of the workplace activities exposing people to lead include:

  • dry machine grinding, discing, buffing or cutting lead
  • manufacturing or recycling lead-acid batteries
  • repairs to radiators or vehicle exhaust systems
  • melting or casting lead or alloys containing lead e.g. lead dampcourse, trophies, yacht keels, leaded brass
  • removal of lead paint from surfaces by dry sanding, heat or grit blasting
  • demolition involving oxy-cutting of structural steel primed with lead paint
  • fire assay involving lead
  • handling lead compounds causing lead dust e.g. from dry lead pigments, lead UV stabilisers
  • spray painting with lead paint (> 1% lead by dry weight).

How to avoid exposure

Some of the ways to avoid exposure to lead include:

  • Wear protective clothing like overalls, disposable overshoes, hat and gloves.
  • Do not use practices that produce dust clouds containing lead (e.g. dry sweeping, using compressed air to clean areas contaminated with lead, using ordinary vacuum cleaners without HEPA filters).
  • Wear a particulate respirator designed in accordance with Section 8.4.3 of AS/NZS 1716 Respiratory Protective Devices for the method used.
  • Do not use inexpensive disposable dust masks with a single elastic strap, as they do not provide adequate respiratory protection against lead dust or lead fume hazards.
  • Make sure the respirator fits and seals the face. To seal properly the face must be cleanly shaven. If you have a beard, you should wear a powered air-purifying respirator fitted with P2 or P3 filters.
  • Store the respirator face down, in a sealed container away from the hazard source when not in use. Do not hang it by the straps.
  • Check that the respirator is free of dust inside, all valves are in good condition and correct filters are fitted and in good condition before use.
  • Leave the respirator on until the protective clothing has been removed.
  • Change coveralls and overshoes before leaving the work area to avoid contaminating other areas.
  • Do not eat, drink or smoke in a lead-risk work area.
  • Use nailbrushes to wash hands and face thoroughly before smoking, eating or drinking outside a lead-risk work area.
  • Do not take lead contaminated clothing home for laundering. Employers are responsible for ensuring that lead contaminated clothing is laundered.
  • Shower and wash hair as soon as possible after finishing work.
  • Have your blood levels checked by a registered medical practitioner with experience in health monitoring if you are working with lead-based paint.

Health effects from lead absorption

Lead can be inhaled through dust or fumes or swallowed through eating contaminated food or smoking with contaminated fingers. Untreated lead poisoning in adults, children and pets can be fatal. Often pets are the first to show signs of lead poisoning.

Lead poisoning symptoms

Common symptoms of lead poisoning are:

  • loss of appetite
  • constipation
  • diarrhoea
  • loss of weight
  • severe abdominal pains
  • muscle weakness
  • limb paralysis
  • headaches
  • tiredness
  • irritability.

Continued exposure or high levels of exposure can cause:

  • anaemia
  • kidney damage
  • nerve and brain damage.

What to do if you suspect lead poisoning

Consult a doctor immediately if lead poisoning is suspected.

The doctor should order a blood test to determine if lead has been absorbed.

Who is at risk?

Common people who are at risk include:

  • anyone visiting the workplace (workers, employers, customers, maintenance workers)
  • anyone removing lead-based paint
  • people in premises neighbouring the workplace
  • family members exposed to lead carried home on the clothing of a worker, employer or self-employed person
  • children, pregnant and breastfeeding women.

Lead exposure during pregnancy is of particular concern because it can cross the placenta and at low levels has been shown to be harmful to the foetus, affecting the baby's nervous system. Children are at risk because they are more susceptible to absorbing lead than adults. Even low amounts of lead absorbed by a child can reduce a child's intellectual development.

Who is responsible for controlling the risks?

Lead is a highly toxic cumulative poison for which:

  • manufacturers and importers must prepare, review, amend and provide Safety Data Sheets
  • suppliers must provide the Safety Data Sheets and label lead containers.

Employers and self-employed persons must:

Workers must:

  • participate in health monitoring
  • tell the employer about a medical condition that may be adversely affected by exposure to lead
  • tell the employer if pregnant and/or breastfeeding.

The lead audit checklist (DOC, 0.16 MB) and the lead paint removal/residential buildings audit checklist (PDF, 0.3 MB) will help identify the risks of working with lead.