Protecting Workers from Lead Exposure During Water Service Line Replacement

Water service line replacement is an essential task aimed at ensuring the safety of our water supply. However, the workers on the front lines, face an unforeseen danger – lead exposure. NIOSH has taken a crucial step to address this concern by releasing a document, “Reducing Workers’ Lead Exposure during Water Service Line Removal and Replacement” (PDF). The document comprehensively outlines the risks workers encounter during this process, providing guidance for employers and workers alike to protect against lead exposure.

Every day, countless workers take on the important task of replacing old lead water service lines with new, lead-free alternatives. These lines, which are estimated to number between 6 and 10 million in the United States, play a crucial role in supplying water to various institutions, including homes, schools, and businesses. In light of growing concerns about lead contamination, significant efforts are being made to replace these lines and ensure the safety of our water supply.

However, with the increasing focus on replacing these lead pipes, workers involved in the process face a higher risk of lead exposure. It’s not just the ingestion of lead-contaminated water that poses a threat; they can also be exposed to lead through inhalation and contact with lead pipes, equipment, and soil. This issue demands attention to safeguard the health of those responsible for improving our water systems.

Understanding the Risks

Workers who could potentially be exposed to lead during water service line replacement include managers, supervisors, and field workers from plumbing companies, water utilities, and construction firms. Their risk of lead exposure heightens when they engage in various tasks, such as working in excavation pits, cutting, handling lead pipes and equipment, or dealing with lead-contaminated soil during excavation using heavy equipment or manual digging with shovels.

The process of replacing lead residential or commercial service water lines involves multiple steps, including excavation, connection to the main line, disconnection and removal of the old lead line, and finally connecting the new copper line to the water main line. This procedure can generate lead dust, putting workers at risk.

For some communities, a technique involving installing a new service line adjacent to the old lead line while leaving the old line undisturbed might be acceptable to minimize lead exposure. This method’s suitability can vary depending on regional factors such as soil type, the presence of other underground structures, and the nature of the surrounding infrastructure.

The Health Effects of Lead Exposure

Lead is a toxic substance with no beneficial purpose in the body. It can enter the body through inhalation, ingestion, skin contact, or eye exposure. Long-term exposure to lead at work can have a range of health effects, including decreased nervous system function and physical weaknesses. Lead exposure is also linked to increased blood pressure and anemia, particularly in middle-aged and older individuals.

At higher levels of exposure, lead can cause severe damage to the brain and kidneys, decreased fertility in both men and women, and even miscarriages. Therefore, the health implications of lead exposure are far-reaching and necessitate stringent safety measures.

Take-Home Lead Exposure

Another important aspect to consider is take-home lead exposure. Workers exposed to lead during their jobs can unknowingly carry it into their homes on their skin, clothing, shoes, and personal items like keys, phones, or lunchboxes. Personal vehicles can also become contaminated with lead. This exposure can be hazardous to household members, including children. Notably, no safe blood lead levels have been identified for children, and lead exposure in children is linked to various developmental and neurological disorders.

Recommendations for Reducing Lead Exposure

Both employers and workers play a vital role in reducing lead exposure during water service line replacement. The following measures are recommended to protect workers’ health:

Employers should:

  • Develop a written lead-monitoring and control program.
  • Monitor airborne exposures to ensure compliance with safety standards.
  • Provide and encourage the use of tools that produce less lead dust.
  • Offer proper training regarding lead hazards and work practices.
  • Emphasize hygiene and housekeeping practices.
  • Supply personal protective equipment (PPE) at no cost to workers.
  • Ensure the availability of facilities like locker rooms, showers, and laundry services.
  • Implement cleaning procedures to minimize lead dust contamination.

Workers should:

  • Follow recommended work practices, including regular monitoring of blood lead levels.
  • Clean surfaces and equipment to prevent contamination.
  • Avoid bringing personal items into lead-contaminated areas.
  • Use appropriate PPE when handling lead pipes.
  • Practice good hand hygiene and clean-up procedures.
  • Ensure the proper handling of work clothing and personal items.

By taking these recommended measures, employers and workers can work together to significantly reduce the risk of lead exposure during water service line replacement, contributing to a safer working environment and healthier communities.