The dangers of working with lead are well-known and well-documented: if exposure to lead is not controlled or prevented, levels in the blood can become dangerously high. It is extremely toxic and can have an adverse effect on many parts of the body, resulting in symptoms including:
• Aggressive and irritable behaviour and insomnia
• Loss of appetite, constipation and abdominal pain
• Headaches, anaemia and lethargy
It is particularly dangerous for children, affecting their development; while high levels in adults can cause vomiting, unsteadiness, weakness, fits or even comas.
Anyone working with lead should be provided with face masks or respiratory equipment, protective clothing, and regular blood tests in order to monitor the levels entering the blood stream. Health and safety training offering awareness of the risks involved and effective control measures would also be advisable.
And yet, despite the obvious risks, a recycling plant in Edmonton employed more than ninety workers to strip lead-covered copper cabling without doing anything to reduce their exposure to the toxic substance.
The HSE investigated when an employee complained, and found that the workers’ lack of protection was exposing them and their families to lead poisoning. Tests revealed that 23 workers had unacceptably high levels of lead in their blood, 6 were displaying symptoms of poisoning and 2 required medical treatment.
The company was prosecuted and fined nearly £50,000 for the breaches and ordered to pay more than £25,000 in costs.