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Long-term exposure to mercury has serious health effects. It can affect vision and the central nervous system. Mercury is usually associated with the medical industry. Those who work in demolition, petroleum, and recycling are also at risk for exposure. Good hygiene practices can help protect workers.

How workers are exposed

Mercury was once commonly found in medical equipment. It was also used in construction, agriculture, and other industries. Today, the use of mercury has been significantly reduced due to its extreme toxicity. Workers may still encounter it in equipment such as electrical switches or fluorescent lamps. Older pesticides and fungicides containing mercury compounds are also a source of exposure. The risk exists whether these products are in use or in storage. If a container that holds elemental mercury or a mercury compound breaks, workers may be at risk.

Mercury exposure is most common in the following industries:

  • Fluorescent lights, batteries, and electronics
  • Switches, toggles, transformers, high-intensity discharge lamps, and thermostats
Health care & social services
  • Older medical equipment such as thermometers, blood pressure cuffs, and manometers
Oil & gas
  • Pressure and vacuum gauges, barometers, and manometers
  • Piping tanks and vessels
  • Fungicides and pesticides
Art Galleries and museums
  • Mercury has been used as a preservative in artwork, ethnology and taxidermy collections

The risks

Mercury can be absorbed through your skin as a liquid, or inhaled as a vapour. The health effects appear to be the same for both types of exposure. Repeated, long-term exposure to mercury can cause:

  • Kidney damage
  • Central nervous system problems (stupor, tremors, nervousness)
  • Vision and hearing changes
  • Hearing loss
  • Cognitive and behavioral abnormalities

How to reduce the risks

The best way to reduce the risk of exposure to mercury is to eliminate the source of exposure. If that's not possible, there are other risk controls to use. These should be identified in your exposure control plan. When choosing risk controls, start by asking the questions in the following steps. The steps are listed in order of effectiveness.

  1. 1

    Elimination or substitution

    Eliminating the hazard by substituting a safer process or material, where possible, is the most effective control. A question to consider:

    • Can a mercury-free alternative be used?
  2. 2

    Engineering controls

    Making physical modifications to facilities, equipment, and processes can reduce exposure. Some questions to consider:

    • Can the work process be automated to eliminate workers' exposure to mercury?
    • Can a process that generates less risk of exposure to mercury be used?
    • Can air monitoring equipment be used?
    • Can workstations be modified to remove contaminated air?
    • Can changing rooms for workers provide separate lockers for work and street clothes?
    • Can eating facilities be located away from work areas?
    • Have washing stations been provided?
  3. 3

    Administrative controls

    These involve changing work practices and work policies. Awareness tools and training also count as administrative controls. All can limit the risk of mercury exposure. Some questions to consider:

    • Has an exposure control plan been developed?
    • Can warning signs be posted in the work area?
    • Can workers be scheduled away from hazardous procedures?
    • Can a hygiene awareness program be implemented?
  4. 4

    Personal protective equipment

    This is the least preferred control. When used, there must always be at least one other control in place as well. Some questions to consider:

    • Do workers have the proper respirators, eye wear, and protective clothing?
    • Have workers been fit tested to ensure their respirators work effectively?
    • Has personal protective equipment been verified to ensure it is working properly?