Heightened lead pipe removal safety measures are necessary to protect the health and well-being of those tasked with eliminating threats from our communities. To address the ongoing exposure problem, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) published “Workplace Solutions: Reducing Workers’ Lead Exposure during Water Service Line Removal and Replacement” to increase awareness and minimize the risk to hard-working people.

But the shocking number of lines that need to be removed and replaced in the U.S. alone demonstrates that companies would be well-served to stockpile lead protective safety clothing for the jobs ahead.

Lead Lines Remain a Clear and Present Danger

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates there are upwards of 9.2 million lead service lines that deliver potable water to cities and towns across the U.S. These old and sometimes decaying water lines have been linked to 400,000 schools and undermine the clean drinking water of children and teenagers.

As part of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure spending package signed into law in 2021, the following actions to eliminate lead waterlines and paint have been mandated.

  • The EPA released $3 billion to states, tribes, and territories in 2022 to remove and replace lead lines.
  • The Treasury repurposed $350 billion from the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund, via the American Rescue Plan, to remove and replace lead-laced faucets and fixtures.
  • The Department of Labor and EPA worked to onboard labor unions and train workers to accelerate lead line abatement projects.

Lead pipe removal safety measures must include select equipment and disposable personal protective clothing because even short-term exposure has been known to damage the kidneys, brain, and to lower oxygen levels in the bloodstream.

EPA Announces New Lead Pipe Removal Mandate

The EPA announced the Lead and Copper Rule Improvements on Nov. 30, 2023. This measure seeks to fast-track the rate of removals and replacements that are currently in place. Expected to take effect in the coming months, the measure would increase the rate of annual water pipe system reductions from 3 percent to 10 percent in every state.

As more trained technicians move into the workforce, states can be compelled to go beyond 10 percent if they have the bandwidth and access to lead protective safety clothing to move more swiftly.

According to reports, the EPA predicts an end to children getting lead poisoning from drinking water in the “not-too-distant future.” But frontline workers will need to wear protective clothing and become educated about the ways lead can negatively affect their health.

How are Workers Exposed When Working with Lead Pipes?

It’s important to keep in mind that wide-reaching operations routinely use lead. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that hundreds of thousands of construction-sector and general workers come in contact with the more than 1.3 million metric tons of lead handled in the U.S. each year.

Practices such as excavation, cutting, lifting, and transporting lengths of pipe release tiny particles that create a hazardous environment for employees. These are ways workers typically suffer lead exposure when removing lead pipes.

  • Direct Skin Contact
  • Airborne Dust Entering Eyes, Nose, Mouth, or Ears
  • Dust Particles Breathed into Lungs
  • Fragments Resting on or Piercing Exposed Skin
  • Lead Dust Building Up in Hair
  • Lead Dust Accumulating on Street Clothes and Footwear

The last two bullet points highlight the ways lead poses a threat to workers’ families and/or individuals beyond the worksite. When tiny particles are transported from the job site to a worker’s home via clothing, loved ones can come in contact with the health threat as well.

This point proves particularly dangerous for toddlers and young children who are inclined to touch numerous surfaces / items and transfer the toxin to their mouths. Given the pace at which the federal government wants to achieve complete removal and the anticipated influx of new workers, the lead pipe removal safety measures proposed by NIOSH comes at an opportune time.

NIOSH Recommends Lead Exposure Reduction Measures

Workers removing lead lines are helping to protect the health and well-being of millions of Americans. In carrying out this vital public service, they are knowingly putting themselves in harm’s way. Companies generally charge a premium for hazardous materials removal, and lead pipes certainly qualify for hazard pay and rates.

That being said, educating crews and always having a stock of disposable lead protective safety clothing is the least organizations can do, given their risks. These are ways NIOSH urges industry leaders and supervisors to implement on-site lead safety measures.

  • Company Safety Officials Should Craft a Lead-Monitoring and Control Plan.
  • Monitor Airborne Particle Exposure
  • Utilize High-Efficiency Particulate Air-filtered vacuums (HEPA) for Field-Work Cleanup.
  • Thoroughly Train New Hires Regarding the Hazards of Lead Exposure.
  • Require Annual Lead Safety Refresher Training.
  • Instruct Workers Regarding Best Practices for Removing Lead Pipes and Cleanup.
  • Teach Employees How to Effectively Clean Vehicles, Tools, and Equipment.
  • Ensure Workers Properly Wash and Sanitize Hands Before Taking Lunch or Coffee Breaks.
  • Train Workers in Proper Cutting and Lead-Pipe Removal Techniques.

These and other risk management policies are essential ways to reduce the amount of contact working people have with lead while on task. But the type of due diligence implemented by safety-conscious employers can only provide limited protection. Disposable lead protective safety clothing is the linchpin that shields community members from imminent contact and helps ensure lead dust does not find its way to people’s homes.

Lead Protective Safety Clothing for Pipe Removal

People who enter careers that involve hazardous materials removal, such as lead, are generally considered at increased risk of long-term exposure. Ongoing contact with lead dust elevates the health risks considerably. The routine inhalation of airborne particles and skin contact has been linked to nervous system issues, weakness in the extremities, anemia, and decreased fertility for men and women.

These conditions are in addition to the health setbacks associated with short-term exposure. Given the current lead permissible exposure limit mandated by OSHA stands at 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air over eight hours, the most effective way to insulate workers is by requiring employees to properly don and doff disposable lead protective safety clothing, based on OSHA 29 CFR 1910.132 and 29 CFR 1926.95 regulations.

  • Protective Gloves
  • Coveralls with Hoodies
  • Eye and Ear Protection
  • Footwear Protection
  • Disposable Masks and Respirators

The CDC recommends that workers do not wear street clothes during lead pipe removal and other tasks involving hazardous materials. Personal items such as keys, cell phones, and others are potential contamination sources and should not be carried to job sites near lead pipe removal and replacement operations. They must be stored in a secure location away from spaces where workers will later doff tainted protective clothing.

Donning disposable clothing starts with the coveralls, then foot protection, headwear, masks, eye wear, and gloves last. Doffing should be performed in reverse order in a separate space, followed by thorough personal cleaning and sanitizing.

The inventory organizations establish needs to provide a comfortable fit that doesn’t restrict movement and won’t allow loose fabric from becoming easily torn or frayed. When crew members engage in activities such as excavation and water line removal, it’s also essential that the protective clothing and equipment offer industry-leading defenses against seepage.

The NIOSH guidance comes on the heels of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) health hazard study that found safety shortfalls in the construction sector. For example, air samples exceeded lead safety thresholds, workers had hazardous dust inside gloves, and too often failed to wear personal protective clothing and equipment correctly. Employers have an opportunity to meet NIOSH recommendations by creating a stockpile of disposable clothing that fits appropriately and is proven effective against lead hazards.