Workers receive lead poisoning in refurbishment project


During 2014 we have reported frequently on refurbishment sites that have fallen foul of the asbestos safety regulations, and warned of the dangers of this deadly material.

Less often, thankfully, do we hear about cases where lead has endangered workers, yet it was a common ingredient in many old paint formulations and it remains a significant hazard to workers engaged on the demolition and refurbishing of old buildings.

Engineering company Bam Nuttall Ltd was the principal contractor on the project to refurbish the historic Nab Tower. Once it was a military control tower and even now it is used by seafarers as a beacon when navigating the waters of the Solent and Isle of Wight.

Old weathered steel sections had to be cut into and then removed. This work involved the use of industrial torches: Bam Nuttall used metal fabrication company Four Tees Engineering Ltd as a sub-contactor for this task, but in practice workers from both firms took part in the work.

Tests way above legal limits

Belatedly, the alarm was sounded when two of the Four Tees workers – Russell Leggett and Robert Peach – suffered from dust and fume inhalation. They were admitted to hospital in July 2013. Their blood was tested, and against a safe lead reading of 60, their lead levels were 110 and 97 respectively.

Three other workers (of Bam Nuttall) were tested due to having been at risk, but the tests in their cases were inconclusive.

Leggett and Peach received intensive care, and it took months before monitoring showed that their blood counts had become safe again.

The problem was that the old steel was covered with lead paint and the cutting and heat had released it. An HSE investigation found that Bam Nuttall was aware of the presence of lead paint. The failings that were identified were

  1. The principal contractor did not review the requirement for safety precautions to limit lead risks
  2. The subcontractor also failed to institute lead control measures
  3. Both companies permitted unsafe work practices such as eating, drinking and smoking nearby, increasing the contamination risks from lead dust
  4. Workers were not tested for lead in their blood, despite the potential permanent harm that it can do to organs and nerves
  5. There were not proper decontamination facilities on site

Inspectors pointed out that the stripping or grinding of painted material is risky and you should always assume it contains lead unless you have firm evidence to the contrary.

These conclusions were in practice agreed to by the contractors, who following this event belatedly applied the required strict rules, with clean and dirty areas being identified: in the latter, decontamination was insisted upon before men could move to the clean zone. They also supplied the workers with safer face masks and each man was given regular medical tests.

Nevertheless for the original failings, both firms went before Portsmouth Crown Court, where Bam Nuttall Ltd. from Camberley, Surrey received a heavy fine of £56,000 plus £6,165 in costs.

Four Tees Engineering Ltd. from Fareham, Hants, as the subcontractor, had a smaller fine of £14,000 and costs of £2,081.

They were guilty of breaching the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992, both of which will be familiar to other safety consultants and in-house safety practitioners. Less well known may be the Control of Lead at Work Regulations 2002, of which Regulation 10(1) says:

Every employer shall ensure that each of his employees who is or is liable to be exposed to lead is under suitable medical surveillance by a relevant doctor where (a) the exposure of the employee to lead is, or is liable to be, significant; (b) the blood-lead concentration or urinary lead concentration of the employee is measured and equals or exceeds the levels detailed in paragraph (2); or (c) a relevant doctor certifies that the employee should be under such medical surveillance, and the technique of investigation is of low risk to the employee.

It is clear from a reading of this legal requirement that contractors must be extra cautious and must put the appropriate medical facilities in place whenever they are going to be disturbing old paintwork.