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How Lead Health Monitoring Can Save Lives

February 06, 2017 in Health and Wellness and SureHire News by Taylor Merkley

SureHire now offers lead health monitoring, a medical surveillance program designed to protect the health of workers who may be exposed to lead. You may be aware of lead’s toxicity and the harmful effect it can have on people who ingest or inhale it. Like the effects of asbestos and other hazardous materials found at work, lead health effects can sometimes have long latency periods, and symptoms might not be realized until many years after the initial exposure. Implementing a lead health program can help protect your workforce from the harmful effects of exposure.

What is lead?

Lead is a dense, malleable metal material. Considered toxic to humans, lead can form organic and inorganic compounds with other substances. If dust or smoke containing lead is ingested or inhaled, it can have an array of harmful health effects. Fragments of ingested or inhaled lead can be deposited into the bone, and may accumulate there over many months or even years before it is released into the blood. A long stretch of time can often pass between initial exposure and the realization of symptoms.

Exposure to lead can result in a variety of conditions, including anemia, gastrointestinal dysfunction, and damage to the nerves and central nervous system (resulting in symptoms like mood changes, hearing loss, hallucinations, and, in some serious cases, coma or death). In addition to the health of the worker, the health of the worker’s family may be at risk if lead dust is taken from the workplace to the family vehicle or home on clothing, footwear or in the hair. Children and pregnant women are much more susceptible to the health effects from lead exposure than the general population, as lead poisoning can impair physical and psychological development in children.

Evidence also links persistent lead exposure with hypertension, reduced kidney function, and problems with male reproductive health. The International Association for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies lead as belonging to Group 2A, meaning that there is evidence to suggest it may cause cancer in humans, including cancers of the brain, lungs, kidney, and stomach.

Who is at Risk?

Workers can be exposed to lead in a number of different ways. Here are just a few of the occupations in which a worker might be exposed to lead:

  • artists, jewelers and potters
  • battery or metal recycling workers
  • chrome plating workers
  • demolition & renovation workers
  • electronic manufacturing workers
  • foundry workers
  • galvanizing or galvanized metal processing workers
  • glass manufacturer & recycling workers
  • lead abatement workers
  • lead manufacturers, miners
  • refiners & smelters
  • painters that apply industrial coatings
  • plastics manufacturing
  • plumbers & pipefitters
  • radiator & automotive repair technicians
  • shooting range workers
  • type press printing & stamp production workers
  • welders

All of these occupations involve interaction with and exposure to lead, either by directly handling the stuff or coming into contact with it occasionally. Even limited exposure can be dangerous.

Why do I need a lead health monitoring program?

Heavy or frequent lead exposure often leads to small changes in physiology that will eventually result in serious health problems. An ongoing monitoring program can alert workers to small changes in their health, arresting the progression of any adverse health effects in their earliest stages.

The benefits of this program go beyond individual worker health, however. The results of medical monitoring can also be useful in evaluating the effectiveness of protective measures already in place to control lead exposure at work, and can assist employers in deciding whether and when changes to safety measures are necessary. Lead health monitoring can improve the safety culture of your company!

In many provinces, you are also legally required to implement a lead health program. Health codes in Alberta, BC, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, and Ontario all specifically require that exposed workers must have access to an effective health monitoring program. Many specify access to blood lead level testing and other health measures. Although other provinces have no specific legislation requiring medical surveillance for exposed workers, many (like Prince Edward Island) consider instances of lead-related workplace health issues on a case by case basis and may impose consequences for companies that do not provide adequate protections for their workers. Read requirements by province here.

What else can I do to protect my workers?

The best method of protection is to limit exposure to lead as much as possible. If lead is present in the workplace and poses a hazard, an exposure control plan must be in place. Employers should consider strategies like elimination and substitution, engineering controls, administrative controls, and PPE.

Inhalation is the most common route of occupational exposure, followed by ingestion. Adhering to safe work practices, maintaining a high level of personal hygiene, and the proper use of PPE such as respiratory protection and appropriate protective clothing can all help to greatly reduce your risk of harmful exposure.

For more information about lead health monitoring, please click here.

Further Reading:
Carex Canada: Lead Health
Work Safe BC: Workplace Health and Safety Hazards – Lead
Work Safe Alberta: OHS Bulletin – Lead at the Work Site

Photo credit: taberandrew via Foter.com / CC BY

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