Americans generate 390 million tons of trash each year, resulting in some 270 million tons of waste that end up in landfills annually.1 While the nation strives to find suitable and new sources of energy, the energy-from-waste (EfW) industry is providing sustainable solutions by turning that waste into clean, renewable electricity using technologically advanced means.

Generating that clean energy, however, must be done safely, and health and safety professionals must ensure employees in the industry are protected from workplace hazards and stresses. Covanta Energy, a global owner and operator of EfW projects, has implemented many best practices for protecting workers in this industry, such as how to protect against harmful lead exposure and ways to continue moving toward a safer and cleaner future.

6 Steps for Continuous Improvement

Step 1: Improve equipment design and maintenance.
Step 2: Prioritize exposures before sampling.
Step 3: Wipe lunch tables, countertops, control room desktops, etc.
Step 4: Wipe worker hands before and after work.
Step 5: Wipe the insides of the respirators.
Step 6: Use medical surveillance to determine what gets into the worker's body.


Testing for Lead

Today's modern EfW facilities use municipal solid waste as fuel for the energy-generating process. A wide variety of man-made items containing lead are found in the waste, including batteries, plastic toys, home décor items, kitchen utensils, cosmetic products and jewelry. After combustion, 10 percent of the incoming waste volume remains as ash, and the lead from these products becomes a small but important component of the ash residue. With lead remaining in the ash, facility workers who inhale or ingest ash may face lead exposure.

To monitor the working environment and protect against exposure, industrial hygienists regularly test the workplace ambient air for lead while workers perform their daily tasks. Blood tests also are administered to determine whether inhaled or ingested lead actually entered the body. As stipulated by the OSHA lead regulation, 29 CFR1910.1025, blood lead testing is made available to workers who may be exposed above the OSHA lead airborne action level (AL) of 30 micrograms (µg)/m3 for more than 30 days per year.

While the OSHA regulation specifies that worker blood lead levels must be kept below 40 µg/dl of whole blood (Point A on the chart), current studies on adult blood lead levels now are reporting adult health effects at 10 µg/dl or lower (Point B on the chart). These studies also suggest medical removal should be considered above the 10 µg/dl level. To put these numbers into perspective, the unexposed U.S. average blood lead level (geometric mean) for adult males aged 29-59 is reported as 2.0 µg/dl (Point C on the chart below).

blood lead comparison