Lead is a naturally occurring metal used in industry. In the past lead was added to petrol and paints. As it can be hazardous when inhaled or swallowed its use falls under the OHS/WHS regulations. Last year SafeWork Australia lowered the blood lead levels in Australian workplaces and this has now filtered through to changes in regulations in individual states as well.
The health effects from exposure to lead can depend on a person’s age, (female) reproductive capacity, exposure level and duration and other health conditions. Once lead enters the body it circulates in the blood and can be stored in the bones and teeth potentially causing long term health issues.
The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) report that any exposure causing elevated blood lead levels is significant, flagging health effects including increased cardiovascular disease and cardiovascular related fatality and reproductive /developmental risks to women who are or may become pregnant.
Exposure to lead has also been associated with headache, stomach pain, anaemia, damage to the kidneys, nerves or brain, and infertility. In NSW, more than 30 workers were reported injured in workplaces as a result of lead risk work over the past three years.
Changes in lead regulations, reducing the blood lead concentrations and triggering mandatory control action, follow a reduction in the Workplace Exposure Standard to 0.05 mg/m3 in 2018. A 2 years transition period applies to both these measures which are complimented by the general regulatory requirements to reduce hazardous substances exposures as far as reasonably practicable using the control hierarchy.
Amendments were made to the NSW Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017 on 1 July 2019 with industry given two years to comply. The amendments include changes to:
SafeWork NSW advise that lead risk work is found in various industries, including: shipbuilding, manufacturing and demolition. They give examples of processes involving lead as including:
The Regulations require a person in control of a business or undertaking (PCBU) to assess each lead process carried out at the workplace to determine if it is lead risk work. In assessing the risk associated with a lead process you must have regard to:
The effect of using personal protective equipment cannot be taken into account when looking at exposure to lead. If the PCBU is in any doubt, the process must be taken to include lead risk work until a determination that lead risk work is not carried out is obtained.
Some specific changes include:
South Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and the ACT have all made recent changes mirroring what NSW has done. They have lowered the blood lead removal levels and maximum permissible airborne concentration of lead to afford greater protection to workers who may be exposed to lead at the workplace. At this stage Victoria and Queensland have not followed suit and we know of no plans to do so.
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