Diamaco Inc. of Bellevue, Wash., was cited for 15 violations of worker safety and health rules while doing bridge repair work. The violations occurred in January on the Wishkah River Bridge in Aberdeen, Wash.
The work was temporarily stopped and four workers were removed from the job site because of their high blood-lead levels. Blood test results indicated that one worker had the highest occupational blood-lead level seen in the 10 years this data has been tracked in Washington state.
Overexposure to lead is a serious health hazard that causes damage to the reproductive organs, brain, nerves, kidneys and blood cells. Lead enters the body either by being inhaled from dust, mist or fumes in the air or swallowed. Lead dust can be swallowed if it gets on hands, clothes or beards, or gets in food, drinks or cigarettes.
Family members of workers, particularly young children, are especially at risk of lead exposure if a worker wears the contaminated work clothes home or does not wash off after working with lead products. If a pregnant woman is exposed to lead, it may harm her unborn child.
The Diamaco case illustrates the ongoing problem of overexposure to lead in the construction industry. Although the effects of lead exposure on health have been known for many years, L&I officials say workers are still suffering damage to their health from workplace exposure to lead, frequently from lead-based paint.
Most construction workers believe lead is no longer used in paint, according to Anne Soiza, an L&I program manager. "Workers need to be aware that exposure to lead for even a very short time can cause permanent health effects," Soiza said. "In the case of small children, smaller amounts, such as dust that clings to a worker's clothing, skin or hair, can cause damage."
Lead is still a primary ingredient in paints used on metal outdoor surfaces, such as boats, railings and bridges. High levels of lead also exist in older interior paint (used prior to 1970s). Work activities that use or disturb lead paint fall under safety and health laws, which are enforced by L&I.
Employers are required by state law to protect their workers from exposures that may occur when painting with lead-based paint or when doing prep work, sanding or torch cutting on lead-painted surfaces.