Justin Tyas examines a case in which the owner of a metal alloy company was ordered to pay £80,000 in fines and costs for failing to protect workers from the risks of lead poisoning.

Background on lead

Lead has been mined for more than 6000 years, and the metal and its compounds have been used throughout history. Lead is responsible for one of the first recorded occupational diseases: Hippocrates (370 BC) noted symptoms of lead colic in a fourth century metal worker.

Lead has no known biological role. Exposure to lead can lead to its accumulation in the body and cause serious health problems. It is toxic, teratogenic (disturbs the development of an embryo or foetus) and a suspected carcinogen.

The use of lead in petrol, paint and pipes has been phased out. It is now encountered primarily in occupations such steel welding, battery manufacturing, plumbing and in glazes for pottery. In the UK about 40% of lead is recycled from sources such as pipes and lead-acid batteries.

When materials containing lead are processed, worked or recycled they can create dust, fume or vapour. The body can absorb lead by:

  • breathing in lead dust, vapour and fumes, eg blast removal and burning of old lead paint; manufacture and processing of lead compounds

  • ingesting lead, eg eating, drinking, smoking, or biting fingernails without washing the hands and face.

Lead is generally not absorbed through skin exposure. Any lead absorbed at work will circulate in the blood. The body gets rid of a small amount of lead each time it goes to the toilet but some lead will stay in the body, stored mainly in the bones. It can stay there for many years without making you ill. However, if levels of lead in the body become too high, it can cause ill health including:

  • headaches

  • tiredness

  • nausea

  • stomach pains

  • weight loss.

Prolonged and uncontrolled exposure can lead to serious ill health including:

  • kidney damage

  • nerve and brain damage

  • infertility.

Accident report

A worker at a metal alloy factory was admitted to hospital suffering from severe kidney pains. It was discovered that he had lead poisoning. He had been working with two colleagues making lead sheeting from molten lead in a workshop that produced lead sheeting for church roofs. His job was to scrape off the impurities, or dross, in a crucible containing molten lead.

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that conditions were so bad that a Prohibition Notice was served, halting all work with immediate effect. There were inadequate controls in place to protect the workers. It was also established that lunch breaks were taken in an old, lead-contaminated caravan with no running water. Water was collected in contaminated plastic milk cartons from a polluted hand washing area of the workshop. Work clothes were not removed before eating and drinking, and there was no toilet facility at the factory.

The worker was admitted to hospital for three weeks and continued to receive treatment for over a year. He was found to have lead-blood concentration of about 70 micro grams of lead per decilitre of blood (70µg/dl). Legislation requires most workers reaching a lead-blood concentration of 60µg/dl to be suspended from work.

Statutory requirements

Although the owner of the company pleaded guilty to breaching s.2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974 (HSWA), key statutory requirements are made under the Control of Lead at Work Regulations 2002 (CLAW). These Regulations are supported by an associated Approved Code of Practice (ACOP) and guidance.

The main duties under CLAW are summarised below.

Regulation 5: assessment of the risk to health

The purpose of the assessment is to allow employers to make a valid decision about whether the work concerned is likely to result in the exposure of any employees to lead being “significant” and to identify the measures needed to prevent or adequately control exposure.

Significant exposure to lead means exposure where:

  • exposure exceeds half the occupational exposure limit (OEL) for lead

  • there is a substantial risk of an employee ingesting lead

  • there is a chance of a lead substance being absorbed through the skin.

If exposure is liable to be significant, employers will need to:

  • provide employees with protective clothing

  • monitor lead-in-air concentrations

  • place employees under medical surveillance.

Regulation 6: prevent or control exposure to lead

The general duty of this regulation requires employers to ensure that the exposure to lead from any route is either prevented or, where this is not reasonably practicable, adequately controlled. Employers should consider and adopt the best practical measures for achieving the overall protection of employees’ health.

Regulation 7: eating, drinking and smoking

Good personal hygiene is important for preventing exposure to lead and CLAW imposes duties on employers to make sure that employees do not eat, drink or smoke in any place liable to be contaminated by lead.

Regulations 8, 9 and 10

Regulation 8 concerns the maintenance, examination and testing of control measures, regulation 9 deals with air monitoring and regulation 10 with medical surveillance.

Significant exposure to lead require employers to undertake a number of duties under CLAW including measuring the level of lead in an employee’s body and notifying the person of the results.

The blood action level for general employees (excluding women of child bearing age and young persons under 18) is 50µg/dl and the suspension level is 60µg/dl.

If the amount of lead in blood reaches the action level, the employer must investigate why this has happened and try to reduce it to below that level. If, despite all the control measures, the blood-lead level reaches the suspension level, the doctor will repeat the test. If this confirms the result of the first test, the doctor will usually decide that the person should not carry on working with lead. There are some exceptions to this rule.

Regulation 11: information, instruction and training

This regulation requires employers to provide their employees with suitable information, instruction and training about the risks from working with lead and how to work with their employer on individual and collective measures to protect themselves.

Regulation 12: arrangements to deal with accidents, incidents and emergencies

The requirements of this regulation are in addition to those contained in regulation 8 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. They specifically relate to the emergency procedures required for working with lead.

Breaches

The owner of the metal alloy company was sentenced to 6 months in prison, suspended for 18 months. He was also fined £45,000 and ordered to pay £35,000 towards costs after pleading guilty to breaching s.2(1) of HSWA.

Section 2(1) of HSWA states: “It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees.”

Failings

An investigation by the HSE identified a number of significant failings.

  • There was a failure to assess significant exposure to lead, and to put in place suitable control measures to protect the workers.

  • The extraction systems were unsatisfactory, as were the personal protective and respiratory protective equipment.

  • The hygiene and rest facilitates were inadequate, eg the lack of a toilet and eating and drinking in a contaminated facility while wearing contaminated clothing.

  • The employees were not told about the effects of lead or how to recognise the symptoms of over-exposure.

  • No air monitoring or medical surveillance was provided.

Lessons learned

The worker who was admitted to hospital was off work for a year and can never work with lead again. The other workers were also found to be suffering from lead poisoning, including one who had swollen legs and was prescribed immunosuppression steroids. The toxic effects of lead and its compounds have been known for a very long time, and over-exposure to lead can have both acute and chronic health effects on workers. The sentencing judge stated to the defendant that “it would take the skill of Charles Dickens to adequately describe the conditions in which your staff worked”.

These lead poisoning incidents demonstrate that good occupational hygiene is an important factor in protecting workers. Those who own companies and manage workers who may be exposed must assess potential exposure and, where it is likely to be significant, ensure that adequate controls are in place to protect the health of its workers.

Last reviewed 9 January 2015