ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Avoid Mercury Poisoning at Work

Updated on May 16, 2010
Mercury exposure can cause brain damage.
Mercury exposure can cause brain damage.

Mercury is a serious hazard to human health. It can damage the brain, spinal cord, nervous system, kidneys and liver. It can also cause cancer. Both high level/short-term and low level/long-term mercury exposures can cause dangerous health problems. The risk depends on how much mercury a person is exposed to and how long and how often the exposure occurs. Very high exposure to breathing airborne mercury metal vapor can quickly poison a person.

Symptoms begin with cough, chest pain, trouble breathing, and upset stomach. Chemical pneumonia, which can be fatal, may develop. Low level nerve damage from mercury poisoning may start with a loss of sensitivity in hands and feet, difficulty in walking, or slurred speech.

Other developments can include memory loss; shaking, tingling, or loss of feeling of the hand, tongue, or eyelid; vision impairment; loss of coordination; speech impairments; muscle weakness; mental disturbances; and kidney disease.

Mercury is found in thermometers.
Mercury is found in thermometers.

Dangers of vaporized mercury

Mercury is the only metal that is liquid at room temperature. In its pure form (often called metallic or elemental), mercury is a shiny, silver-white, odorless liquid. When elemental mercury is spilled or exposed to the air, it vaporizes slowly. But if heated in a warm environment it will vaporize more quickly into a toxic, colorless, odorless gas. The warmer the temperature, the more quickly mercury vaporizes. In its vapor form, mercury is easily inhaled and is extremely toxic.

If a person is exposed to mercury in air for a long enough time, even a small amount can affect his or her health. Elemental mercury can also be absorbed through the skin. Inorganic mercury compounds may be harmful if breathed or swallowed.

If your facility processes mercury-containing items, you must take precautions to protect your employees and others from exposure.

Elemental mercury.
Elemental mercury.

Step 1: Identify mercury-containing items

Mercury metal is used in many consumer products including barometers, blood pressure instruments, thermometers, thermostats, electrical switches, and some types of light bulbs, including fluorescent, high intensity, mercury vapor, high-pressure sodium, and metal halide. Inorganic mercury compounds are found in old alkaline batteries and some button batteries.

Establish a load screening program so materials are inspected and identified on entry. Any suspected mercury-containing items should be separated from the waste stream and processed using precautions specifically designed to protect people from exposure.

Step 2: Prevent inhalation exposures

The greatest danger of mercury exposure is through inhalation so you must provide continuous air monitoring in areas where mercury-containing items are processed. Record readings every two hours and require the immediate shutdown of the process area if readings go over 0.003 mg/m3. This reading cutoff is far lower than the current permissible exposure level recommended by NIOSH. Using high-efficiency air filtration systems over processing equipment can also minimize mercury concentrations.

If these controls don’t lower exposures to acceptable levels, high exposure areas must be posted as “Respirator Required”. No person must be allowed in a respirator required area unless they use an appropriate organic respirator specifically designed for mercury exposures.

Step 3: Avoid spreading contamination

Avoid spreading mercury contamination to other parts of the facility and prevent employees from taking it home accidentally. Require that employees who work with or near mercury-containing substances:

  • change into work clothes and shoes at work
  • keep their street clothes and shoes in a clean place
  • remove mercury from work clothes and shoes before taking them off
  • shower at work at the end of the day

Do not let employees take work clothes homes to launder if there is a possibility of mercury contamination. Provide laundry services so employee’s work clothes are cleaned off-site.

Visibly contaminated clothing should be treated as hazardous waste and disposed of.

Mercury is especially hazardous to the unborn.
Mercury is especially hazardous to the unborn.

Step 4: Educate employees

Mercury is particularly harmful to the health of pregnant women and their unborn babies. Babies exposed to mercury while in the womb can suffer severe damage to the nervous system and may die. They may also have brain damage, learning disabilities, and hearing loss.

Employees who are pregnant must not work in jobs where there might be an exposure to liquid mercury or vapors. Frequently remind employees that they must inform human resources immediately if they suspect they are pregnant. They will be transferred to jobs where there is no exposure potential. Posters in break and locker rooms are good ways to keep this information in front of employees.

Spilled elemental mercury.
Spilled elemental mercury.

Step 5: If a Spill Occurs

Spilled elemental mercury will bead up and spread readily. The amount of vapor it produces depends on the amount spilled, surface area, temperature (vapor increases with warmer air), air flow, and physical disturbance of the spilled material. If a spill occurs, train employees to:

  • Not touch the spilled mercury
  • Dam the mercury using absorbent material to prevent spreading (have these available in mercury processing areas)
  • Evacuate the area
  • Ventilate by opening windows (if a cool day) or turning up air conditioners
  • Turn off all heaters to minimize evaporation

Step 6: How to Clean up a Spill

Allow only specially trained employees to clean up spilled mercury. Keep spill kits available in those areas where mercury contamination is possible. The spill powder may be used as a temporary control measure and should be spread from the perimeter of the spill toward the center. Do not allow anyone to walk through the spill or spill powder.

  • Never use an ordinary vacuum cleaner or shop vacuum. They can heat the mercury and cause it to vaporize. The vacuum cleaner will also become contaminated and continue to release mercury vapor for a long time.
  • Never use a broom to clean up mercury; it will break the mercury into smaller drops and spread it around more. The small droplets also evaporate faster.
  • Never pour mercury down a drain. The mercury can become lodged in pipes, and pollute septic tanks or waste-water-treatment plants.
  • Never launder mercury-contaminated clothing in a washing machine; doing so can contaminate the washer. Dispose of mercury-contaminated clothing in the trash, or if it is visibly contaminated, take it to a hazardous waste collection site.


You owe your employees a safe work site.  Prevent mercury exposures up front and they will remain healthy, productive workers.

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • questionpaper profile image

      Goonoo Muhammad Munawwar Muazzam 4 years ago from TRIOLET, MAURITIUS

      I'm an occupational safety and health student. I really appreciate these information that you've provided. They're accurate. Thank you for this :)

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, hubpages.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: "https://hubpages.com/privacy-policy#gdpr"

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is used to quickly and efficiently deliver files such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisements has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)