Inorganic lead is used in the form of the pure metal, alloys and compounds. Certain products also contain lead. Exposure to lead can occur in a variety of industries where lead fumes or dust are generated by means of heating, mechanical working or handling of the metal or any of its by-products.  The health effects of lead are potentially extremely serious.

Action Plan for Health and Safety Reps

OHS reps have a very important role in ensuring that the employer complies with the legal requirements for lead. Under the regulations, the employer must consult with the OHS rep/s in identifying lead risk jobs and in the implementation of controls. As the OHS rep you can identify dangerous conditions at the workplace, raise them with management and seek resolution.

As with all workplace hazards, the hazard should be dealt with in this way:

  1. Identification of the hazard  
  2. Assessment of the risk (use the information on this page to assist you)
  3. Elimination or reduction of the risk
  4. Review and evaluation of any control strategies

Lead poisoning can best be controlled by removing lead from the workplace - and this should be done wherever possible. However, in many cases, this is not possible. Lead poisoning is preventable through the development of controls at the work place.

In cases where the biological monitoring shows that a worker has been overexposed to lead, exposure should be stopped and controls should be introduced to prevent any recurrence.

Lead should be kept out of the air workers breathe. To protect union members from lead exposure employers must provide:

  • Local Exhaust Ventilation (where possible) - Local exhaust ventilation uses hoods, ducts, fans, and filters to remove lead fumes and dust at the point where they are produced.
  • Personal Protective Equipment - This includes the use of gloves, goggles, clothing protection, boots, hair covering and where necessary, air respirators.
  • Personal Hygiene - there must be adequate facilities at the workplace to allow workers to wash their hands, face, neck and arms before eating, drinking or smoking.
  • Adequate washing, showering and eating facilities - change rooms to ensure workers can remove contaminated clothing or equipment before entering separate eating areas.

Employers have a duty to provide job applicants who apply to work in a lead process with information about the health risks and toxic effects associated with lead exposure, as well as the need for and details of required medical examinations and biological monitoring.

Employers must also eliminate any risk associated with exposure to lead, so far as is reasonably practicable. If elimination is not reasonably practicable, employers must reduce the risk so far as is reasonably practicable, by:

  • identifying whether a lead process is 'lead-risk work'
  • using the hierarchy of control to ensure any risks associated with exposure to lead are controlled so far as reasonably practicable
  • reviewing risk control measures
  • keeping the lead process area clean
  • providing washing and changing facilities
  • providing an appropriate eating and drinking area that cannot be contaminated with lead from any lead process
  • providing for the laundering or disposal of protective clothing and work clothing that is likely to be contaminated with lead dust
  • arranging medical examinations and biological monitoring as required
  • providing supervision, instruction, information and training to enable employees to work safely with lead.

Part 4.3 of the consolidated Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 sets out the specific requirements for workplaces conducting lead processes. 

Part 4.3 of the regulations applies to workplaces where a lead process is undertaken.  The employer in these workplaces has a range of duties, including to:

  • Provide information (information, instruction and training; SDSs and labels) to both job applicants and employees
  • Control the risks associated with the lead processes
  • Review, and if necessary, revise  the risk control measures in a number of circumstances 
  • Consult with the OHS rep/s
  • Monitor the airborne concentration of lead dust, lead mist or lead fumes and ensure the exposure standard is not exceeded (the current exposure standard is TWA: ppm 0.15 mg/m3, STEL: ppm - mg/m3)
  • Provide appropriate facilities, protective clothing, etc
  • Identify lead risk jobs and notify these to the WorkCover Authority in writing
  • Provide medical examinations and regular biological monitoring of workers in lead risk jobs, provide these to the workers, and keep records of these for 30 years.
    (note that the 'trigger levels' - at which a timetable of monitoring is required - are 1·45 µmol/L for females not of reproductive capacity and all males and 0·48 µmol/L for females of reproductive capacity. If the level of lead in the blood exceeds 2·41 µmol/L for females not of reproductive capacity and all males; ·97 µmol/L for females of reproductive capacity; or 0·72 µmol/L for females who are pregnant or breast feeding, the worker must be removed from that job)

In June 2018, Part 4.3 of the OHS Regulations was amended to include a changed definition of lead-risk work, a lowered airborne lead exposure standard and updated requirements for the frequency of biological monitoring. The changes also included reducing the blood lead level thresholds for removal from, and return to, lead-risk work. These changes may lead to employers having greater legal obligations due to a scheduled process previously being carried out at their workplace now being defined as lead-risk work. The amended regulations commenced on 5 June 2020.

Go to the longer summary of the Part 4.3 (Lead) of the Regulations.  The Regulations can be viewed or download from the Victorian Legislation and Parliamentary Documents website. The old Code of Practice for Lead, (2000) has now been replaced by a new publication (June 2020) Lead: A guidebook for workplaces

Health Effects

Lead is an accumulative poison. The body excretes lead mainly through the urine, but also through the hair and perspiration. Where more lead is absorbed than the body excretes, the body burden of lead is increased. Where the body burden is increased sufficiently, the individual's health can be affected.

Early symptoms of lead exposure include headaches, fatigue, irritability, nervousness, high blood pressure, sleeplessness, pain in joints, aching muscles, poor appetite, weight loss, stomach pains and constipation. If a worker suffers any of these symptoms, he/she should go to the doctor, making sure the doctor is aware of the workplace and the type of work done.

Even more severe effects of lead exposure such as damage to the nervous system, kidney damage, sterility and birth defects, anaemia, and interference with the body's blood forming mechanism may afflict some workers. Children are more susceptible to lead poisoning than adults. Elevated lead concentrations in pregnant women will affect the developing foetus.

In addition to the above, recent research from the USA suggests that accumulated lead exposure may increase the risk of developing a cataract.

Since all of these health problems may either appear slowly or be caused by other reasons, lead can be easily overlooked as the cause. Some workers with these problems will have them for many years, but the health effects will not get much worse. Others will either suddenly or gradually develop the disabling or life-threatening effects of lead poisoning.

How lead gets into the body

Lead can enter your body in two ways: by swallowing or breathing in.

  1. Ingestion: Workers may swallow lead dust which gets on food, drinks or cigarettes or by inadvertent transfer from hand to mouth. About 30% of the lead a person swallows is absorbed into the body.
  2. Inhalation: by breathing air contaminated with lead dust or fumes. Up to 70 per cent of the lead dust or fumes breathed in is absorbed by the body.

Who is at risk?

Workers involved in the following industries:

  • Radiator repair industry
  • Lead smelting and refining
  • Lead-acid battery industry, including recycling
  • Glass and ceramic industries
  • Printing, publishing and allied industries
  • Cable makers
  • Vinyl manufacture
  • Leadlighting
  • Painting
  • Petroleum industry
  • Assaying (for gold)
  • Ammunition and explosives

Other sources of exposure to lead can include:

  • Foil on wine bottle caps
  • Home smelting of lead shot and bullets
  • Foreign cold medicines or cosmetics
  • Petrol containing lead - no longer in Australia
  • Shooting ranges

Measuring lead in the body

One way of measuring the amount of lead absorbed by the body is to measure the concentration of lead in the blood. This involves having a small blood sample (10mls) taken and analysed by an approved laboratory. This is the method generally used. However, since lead can be stored in your bones and other organs - not indicated by the blood lead concentration test - some consider that the blood lead concentration test is inadequate. In addition, it measures only the most recent exposure to lead, not the long-term exposure.

To best assess lead effects on the body, a complete physical examination must be performed. Such an exam will determine the degree of lead poisoning and functional damage to the body.

If you want further information on lead, its effects and what can be done about it, contact your union.

See Also:

From WorkSafe Victoria:

Last amended: June 2023