WorkSafe Victoria recently issued a warning to businesses about the potentially deadly risks of working with lead without adequate safety controls after a WorkSafe operation found unsafe practices at 11 workplaces in the past six months.
Since November last year, WorkSafe has issued 21 improvement notices to 11 workplaces involved in processes likely to expose workers to dangerous lead dust or fumes.
It was disappointing to see serious safety issues at so many of the sites visited, including one workplace which had no system for managing risks associated with lead, said WorkSafe Victoria acting executive director health and safety Adam Watson.
“Lead is a potentially deadly poison – if dust or fumes are inhaled or accidentally swallowed it can stay in your body for years, with serious or even fatal consequences,” Watson said.
“Safety must always be the first priority when working with lead and employers have a duty to ensure workers are appropriately trained and provided with safety equipment.”
During visits to 14 workplaces working with lead, WorkSafe inspectors found one had no system for removing lead dust, while another six either failed to provide appropriate ventilation, PPE or did not give staff appropriate training or information about the use of equipment.
Inspectors also came across cases of workers wearing potentially contaminated clothing in lunchrooms or when travelling home, putting themselves, their colleagues and family members at risk.
When absorbed into the body, high levels of lead can cause headaches, tiredness, irritability, nausea, stomach pains and anaemia. Continued exposure can be fatal or cause serious symptoms, such as kidney damage, nerve and brain damage, paralysis, lead palsy, and damage reproductive health.
Employers have a duty under the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations to identify all hazards associated with lead processes and lead-risk work and implement control measures to eliminate or reduce any risks.
The regulations also require employers to monitor employee blood lead levels, if they are involved in ‘lead-risk work,’ which is work performed in a lead process that is reasonably likely to increase blood levels beyond set levels.
Three workplaces were found not providing the required biological monitoring for their employees. This means that workers may unknowingly have unsafe levels of lead in their system and controls may not be reviewed to protect employees in the future.
Other issues inspectors identified included inadequate handwashing and laundry facilities for contaminated clothing and failing to maintain a hazardous substances register.
WorkSafe’s first Lead Compliance Code was released earlier this year and provides practical guidance for controlling risks associated with lead exposure in the workplace, including requirements for lead-risk work and lead processes.
Lead processes include working with lead, lead alloys and dry lead compounds, and can involve a range of activities, such as radiator repairs, dismantling lead-based batteries, working with lead-based paint, manufacturing ammunition and explosives, or working with pewter, lead pigments or ceramic glazes.