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After China, Australia is the world’s largest primary lead producer. Lead oxide (litharge) is an important component of the flux material used in fire assaying – the industry standard process for obtaining precious metals, such as gold and platinum, from ore. This process is used in many SGS Minerals Geochem laboratories.

SGS employees using Personal Air Purifying Respirators (PAPRs)

Most inorganic lead exposure comes from airborne particulates which are released during the mixing of flux material and the firing of small porous containers known as cupels. These fine particulates can be inhaled and can stick to skin, hair, clothing and laboratory surfaces; they are easily transferred, making exposure to lead a concern throughout a fire assay operation.

Lead exposure can adversely affect the neurological, cardiovascular, immune, and reproductive systems. Lead can accumulate in the body following repeated exposure, presenting a serious risk for those who work with and/or near lead and lead-containing materials.  

As part of an extensive global personal protective equipment (PPE) program, all employees at risk of exposure to lead particles in the Perth and West Wyalong Minerals laboratories in Australia have been equipped with Personal Air Purifying Respirators (PAPRs). Unlike protective facial masks, PAPRs do not rely on a tight fitting facial seal and do not, therefore, require initial and annual fit testing. Furthermore, PAPRs can be re-used or re-issued (with consumable parts being replaced) in the event of personnel changes. With a long battery life, PAPRs can last a full 12-hour shift; batteries can easily be changed during extended shifts.

All SGS employees issued with a PAPR were provided with product guidance and training by the manufacturer, 3M. SGS ensured that company guidelines on the absence of facial hair when using respiratory protection were enforced.

The respirators have brought significant benefits to employees:

  • They cover the entire face using a high-impact shield, eliminating the need to wear separate safety glasses
  • Communication in high noise environments is easier as the mouth is visible through the visor
  • Positive pressure eliminates the need for a good seal between the mask and the face
  • Air can move over the face, allowing for cooling when working in high temperatures

As a result, they are being worn for the duration of shifts.

Blood lead concentrations in employees working with assaying were monitored on a quarterly basis both before and after the deployment of PAPRs.  Considerable reductions in blood lead concentrations following implementation of PAPRs at the two facilities were observed.

These results incontrovertibly show the benefits of enhanced protection for employees equipped with PAPRs. The rollout of PAPRs is now being extended to other facilities in Australia and globally, together with the enhancement of occupational health surveillance in the form of medical checks and blood lead testing.