What Types Of Mercury Exposures Are There In The Workplace?

Friday 15th September 2023

Ellen Warren

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Mercury spill kit in a factory

CONTENTS

A mercury spillage can quickly turn any normal day into a hazardous situation. From causing severe health problems to creating environmental hazards, mercury spills and exposures in the workplace can lead to dangerous or fatal consequences.

When disaster strikes in the workplace, you can rely on our emergency response team at ICE Cleaning. Our experts conduct mercury spill cleaning services and are qualified to effectively contain, decontaminate, and clean your workplace after a large or small spill.

Read on to learn more about how exposure happens at work and prevention measures for workplaces. 

What is mercury?

Mercury is a naturally occurring element that can be found in air, water, and soil. Most are more familiar with its elemental form which remains liquid at room temperature. It also comes in two other forms which are organic and inorganic, but elemental is the most common form. 

Elemental mercury has been used for centuries, with the oldest record of its use dating back to the era of the Romans.

Up until recent decades, elemental mercury was used in old-style thermometers or even industrial processes. However, mercury exposure can be harmful - causing health problems like neurological damage if mishandled. 

What are the risks of mercury exposure?

Mercury, although naturally occurring, is not harmless. When exposed, the consequences can be serious. You may find yourself exposed to mercury by spilling elemental mercury and inhaling the vapour, or consuming it mercury through a large, predatory fish.

We often think of mercury poisoning as a problem of the past, but it still occurs today. The World Health Organisation has warned against the use of mercury and the dangers of its exposure, which can cause:

  • Nervous system damage
  • Digestive tract damage
  • An impacted immune system
  • Lung damage
  • Kidney failure

Types of exposures

Mercury exposures are split into three main types: acute, chronic, and occupational. Acute exposure usually comes from accidental spills or releases. Chronic exposure is long-term contact with low levels that can equally cause sickness. 

Occupational exposures refer to workers who are exposed to higher levels due to their job duties – like miners or industrial cleaners. Potential routes of exposure can differ depending on where you work or what you have consumed. You can be exposed to mercury through:

  • Inhaling fumes
  • Consuming contaminated food or liquids
  • Encountering contaminated surfaces
  • Direct skin-to-liquid exposure

Preventing mercury spills at work

It is crucial for workplaces that use or store mercury-containing equipment or substances to implement effective measures to prevent spills and minimise the potential for exposure. 

Preventing mercury spills at work is not only a matter of regulatory compliance but also a critical component of ensuring the safety and well-being of employees, customers, and the surrounding environment. Some things you can do include:

Employee training

  • Ensure that all employees who may come into contact with mercury-containing materials are properly trained in handling, storage, and local disposal procedures
  • Create a comprehensive training program that covers spill safety
  • Regularly update and refresh training to keep employees informed

Mercury storage

  • Store mercury and mercury-containing equipment in designated, well-ventilated areas in secure containment systems
  • Ensure that storage containers are labelled clearly
  • Implement regular inspections and maintenance of storage facilities

Spill response plan

  • Develop a detailed mercury spill response plan that outlines the steps to take in case of a spill
  • Assign responsibilities to specific employees who will be responsible for handling spills
  • Conduct regular drills and training exercises to ensure that all employees are familiar with the spill response plan

Mercury disposal

  • Establish a clear process for the proper disposal of mercury-containing materials
  • Keep records of disposal activities, including manifests and documentation

Ventilation systems

  • Implement engineering controls such as local exhaust ventilation systems in areas where mercury is used or handled regularly
  • Ensure that ventilation systems are properly maintained and functioning

Personal Protective Equipment

  • Mandate the use of appropriate PPE, including gloves, goggles, lab coats, and respirators
  • Regularly inspect and replace damaged or outdated PPE

Cleaning up a mercury spill

When dealing with mercury spills, it is vital to act quickly and correctly. Do not try to hoover up the spill as this triggers the mercury into evaporating and releases harmful vapours into the environment.

If you are equipped and qualified, you should use one of the on-site spill kits for mercury, and do this with the proper PPE. If you can see tiny beads of mercury on the floor or other surfaces after using an absorbent material, do not touch them directly.

All contaminated items — clothes, and tools used for clean-up — need careful disposal according to local regulations. You should contact a professional cleaning company that specialises in mercury spillage cleaning and disposal.

The experts can step in and take over the situation. You must always put your safety first and evacuate if you are unfamiliar with mercury spills or lack the proper training.

Frequently asked questions

How do you deal with a mercury spillage?

For small spills, use a mercury spill kit. Wear gloves, and proper respiratory equipment and collect the droplets using the tools provided. Large spills need professional help.

How serious is a mercury spill?

A mercury spill can be dangerous due to the toxic vapours it releases. Prolonged exposure can lead to severe health problems like kidney damage and neurological disorders.

How do you clean up a mercury spill in the UK?

In the UK, any major spills should be reported to local environmental authorities. Minor spills can be tackled by those qualified to use a mercury spill kit.

How much spilled mercury is toxic?

Any amount of mercury is potentially hazardous due to its ability to vaporize into harmful fumes when exposed to air. Even tiny drops pose risks if not handled correctly.

Get in touch

Cleaning up after an unfortunate incident might seem daunting, which is why you should rely on our experts at ICE Cleaning to step in and take over. Our specialists conduct mercury spillage removal services, using industrial-grade solutions to neutralise, contain, and dispose of all traces of mercury.

To learn more about our services, you can speak to one of our advisors at 0208 066 0360 or enquiries@icecleaning.co.uk. We are available for emergency jobs 24/7 and can be on-site within a few hours of your first call, 365 days a year. No matter where you are in the UK, we can be there and assist you.

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