BACKGROUND: Despite lowering of the permissible exposure level for lead in construction from 200 to 50 microg/m3 in 1993, excessive lead exposure continues to be a problem. Relatively little data are available from the Midwestern U.S. on the environmental lead concentrations generated during various construction activities and the potential for worker exposure. This study characterized the prevalence of blood lead concentrations in high-risk construction trades in Iowa/Illinois, and identified risk factors for occupational exposure to lead in these construction workers. METHODS: A sample of 459 workers was selected from the total population of all union members from trade groups of painters, plumbers/pipefitters, ironworkers, laborers, and electricians. Participants completed an interviewer-administered questionnaire obtaining information on demographics, symptoms, occupational history, work practices, personal protective equipment, and training. Venous blood samples were collected from each participant and analyzed for blood lead (using atomic absorption spectroscopy) and free erythrocyte protoporphyrin levels. RESULTS: Blood lead levels (BLLs) of construction workers ranged from 0.1 to 50 microg/dL. Geometric mean blood lead concentrations by trade group were: laborers (7.6 microg/dL, n = 80); painters (5.9 microg/dL, n = 83); ironworkers (5.2 microg/dL, n = 87); plumbers (4.4 microg/dL, n = 82); electricians (2.4 microg/dL, n = 91). Blood lead levels for painters and laborers were significantly higher than other trade groups, and levels for electricians were significantly lower (p < 0. 01). Participants reported working primarily on commercial and industrial projects including new construction, renovation, and demolition. There were significant differences between the types of projects performed by different trade groups with laborers performing more highway/bridge renovation (p < 0.01), and plumbers reporting more residential remodeling (p = 0.05), repair of water lines containing lead (p = 0.04), or work on lead joints (p < 0.01). In addition to trade, elevated blood lead levels were associated with the type of construction project (especially bridge renovation and residential remodeling) and activities that include welding, cutting, rivet busting. The age of the home in which the worker lived, and hobbies such as casting/smelting lead for bullets or sinkers, were also important risk factors. Compliance with OSHA's Construction Lead Standard, and implementation of good occupational health and safety practices in general, was poor. CONCLUSIONS: Blood lead levels of 459 construction workers differed by the type of trade, type of project and specific job activity owing to differences in the inherent exposure potential of each task. Although the numbers of workers performing lead abatement projects were small, the trend for lower BLL in this group provides evidence that training, implementation of engineering controls, and proper use of personal protective equipment such as respirators is effective in controlling lead poisoning.
Inorganic-lead; Lead-dust; Industrial-hygiene; Exposure-levels; Construction-workers; Blood-analysis; Personal-protective-equipment; Protective-equipment; Poison-control; Training;
Author Keywords: universal precautions; health care workers; nurses; blood-borne pathogens; safety climate; occupational health and safety; work environment
Stephen J. Reynolds, University of Iowa, Department of Preventive Medicine and Environmental Health, 140 IREH, Iowa City, IA 52242-5000