Occupational Health|Prevention and Wellness|Staying Healthy
Occupational Health

Occupational Exposure to Lead

Lead is a poisonous metal. You can die from too much exposure. It used to be in a lot of products, such as paint and ceramics. Now, there are regulations on the use of lead. However, it can exist in some workplaces. You may be at risk if you work in the following areas:

  • construction
  • manufacturing
  • mining
  • transportation
  • remediation
  • environmental
  • wholesale trade

You can be exposed to lead in three ways.

  • You can breathe in dust or fumes. These are often odorless.
  • You can ingest, or consume, it. Lead can leave a metallic taste in your mouth.
  • You can be exposed through skin contact. This occurs if you handle lead or products that contain it.

It’s important to be aware of your workplace environment. This can help keep you safe if you’re at risk of lead exposure. Learn how to detect symptoms and prevent or minimize exposure.

Path to safety

Your employer is responsible for the workplace. The Lead Standard is a federal and state regulation. The law requires employers to follow certain guidelines. These protect workers from harmful lead exposure. The law states that airborne lead levels must be less than 50 µg (micrograms) per meter, averaged over 8 hours.

Under the Lead Standard, workers have the right to the following:

  • To a safe and healthy workplace.
  • To receive a copy of the guidelines.
  • To receive a copy of air monitoring results.
  • To receive health testing if exposed to airborne lead levels above 30 µg per meter for more than 30 days a year. If this occurs, the employer must provide medical surveillance. This program includes blood testing, a lead-specific exam, and treatment, if needed. You also may need medical clearance to use a respirator. In some cases, workers can get a medical removal. This lets you transfer to a job that doesn’t expose you to lead, without losing pay or benefits.

Talk to your employer’s safety officer. He or she should tell you if your workplace has been checked for high levels of lead. He or she also can provide protective equipment.

Follow basic work safety practices, including:

  • Wear separate clothes and shoes at work.
  • Don’t wear your work clothes and shoes home from work or outside of work.
  • Wash, dry, and store your work clothes separately. Don’t mix them with your other clothes or your family’s clothes.
  • Wash your hands and face before you eat, drink, or smoke. If possible, use a lead removal product to wash your hands and face because regular soap and water won’t remove all lead residue. Try not to touch your face or hair unless you’ve washed your hands.
  • Don’t eat, drink, or smoke in areas that have lead dust and fumes.
  • Avoid stirring up lead dust with dry sweeping. Wet sweeping or cleaning is safer.
  • If you wear a respirator at work, make sure it fits right. Clean it after each use.

Things to consider

Lead stays in your body for a long time. It builds up over time, even if you’re exposed to small amounts. Lead can damage your brain, kidneys, heart, nerves, and blood cells. When it affects your blood, it’s called lead poisoning. High exposures can result in death. Your risk of health problems increases with time and the amount of lead in your body. There is not a set amount of lead that leads to poisoning. This is because the effects of lead differ by person.

Symptoms of lead exposure include:

  • Tiredness or weakness.
  • Muscle and joint pain.
  • Headaches.
  • Stomachaches and cramps.
  • Irritability.
  • Trouble focusing.
  • Decreased appetite.
  • Memory loss.

If you’re worried about lead exposure, talk to your employer and doctor. Your doctor may perform a blood test to check for lead. He or she can tell you about lead levels and the health effects. It’s important your doctor is aware of your lead exposure. This applies even if you don’t notice any symptoms.

In addition to your workplace, lead can exist in your home. It’s found in lead-based paint and lead-infected soil. The older your home, the greater the chance it has lead-based paint. Lead from paint can enter your body through dust or paint chips. The soil around your home can pick up lead from sources such as paint. A certified inspector can check your home for lead.

Lead can get into your drinking water through your plumbing. If you think the plumbing in your house may contain lead, contact a professional to test your water. He or she can check for the presence of lead. Only use cold water for drinking and cooking. Run water for 30 seconds before using it. If your water tests positive for lead, you may need to replace your home’s plumbing.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • What should I do if I think I’m being exposed to lead?
  • How often should I get a blood lead level test?
  • Will the effects of lead exposure, such as lead poisoning, ever go away?


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH): How You Can Keep Yourself and Your Family Safe From Lead

U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration: Lead

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