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Environmental Law Newsletter

Lead Exposure in the Construction Industry

The United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set forth a number of standards that govern a variety of issues related to the construction workplace. OSHA’s Lead Standard for the Construction Industry regulates construction activities that may potentially expose workers to lead. The OSHA standard applies to all construction-related work, including alteration, repair, painting and decorating.

The Hazards of Lead Exposure

Among other dangers, exposure to lead can result in serious harm to the central nervous system (especially the brain), reproductive system, cardiovascular system and kidneys. Further, any lead exposure experienced by construction workers can also harm the development of their children.

Lead in the Construction Environment

Workers most frequently absorb lead by inhaling it as a dust, fume or mist. Alternatively, lead particles may also be ingested via the mouth. Once a worker inhales or ingests lead, significant portions of the lead are absorbed into the bloodstream – creating the potential for toxic consequences, including damage to major organs.

Lead is commonly added to industrial paint because of its ability to inhibit the rusting and corrosion of iron and steel. Although the Consumer Product Safety Commission has prohibited the use of lead-based paint in residential homes, lead is still used on bridges, ships, railways and other steel structures. Lead has also been frequently used for roofs, cornices, tank linings and electrical conduits.

Construction workers may face lead exposure when engaged in the following tasks, among others:

  • Abrasive blasting of bridges and other structures containing lead-based paints
  • Sanding, scraping and grinding lead-based paint surfaces during remodeling
  • Lead-based paint abatement
  • Iron, electrical and demolition work
  • Heating and air conditioning maintenance and repair
  • Renovation and remodeling work

Worker Protection Programs

OSHA’s lead standard sets forth maximum limits of lead exposure for workers in the construction industry. The standard also requires employers to implement and develop a worker protection program for those employees exposed to lead in amounts greater than the permissible source limit (PEL). To minimize the risk of worker lead exposure, the standard requires that the worker protection program implement the following:

  • Hazard assessment, including initial and pending employee exposure assessment and biological monitoring tests
  • Medical surveillance, including medical exams
  • Medical removal provisions, including requirements regarding the employer’s records
  • Written compliance programs
  • Engineering controls, including exhaust ventilation, enclosure of lead-based paint and substitution of materials and chemicals
  • Maintenance of good work practices, including the use of personal protective clothing and equipment
  • Housekeeping programs and schedules
  • Personal hygiene practices, including change areas, shower and washing facilities
  • Respiratory protection, where required
  • Protective clothing and equipment, including full-body work clothing, gloves, hats, vented goggles or face shields, and welding or abrasive blasting helmets
  • Sign posting requirements, including “WARNING,” “LEAD WORK AREA,” “POISON,” and “NO SMOKING OR EATING”
  • Employee information and training
  • Exposure assessment and medical surveillance record-keeping requirements

State Programs

Pursuant to the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA), states are encouraged to create and implement their own job safety and health standards. State laws and regulations must be “at least as effective in providing safe and healthful employment” as existing federal standards. By early 2004, 24 states and two territories operated OSHA-approved plans. While most of these plans are applicable to both the private and the public sector, Connecticut’s, New Jersey’s and New York’s plans cover only public sector employees.

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