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Carcinogens in the electroplating industry


The Challenge

In the electroplating industry, hexavalent chromium and nickel compounds are widely used in deposition plating processes. Both are classified as skin and respiratory sensitising agents as well as being carcinogens; it is therefore important, and a legal requirement, that exposure be reduced to levels as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP).

An estimated 3,000 workers are potentially exposed to nickel and/or hexavalent chromium in the electroplating industry, through inhalation of dusts, fumes and mists, by absorption through the skin, or by ingestion as a result of hand-to-mouth contamination. Consequently, efforts to reduce worker exposure rely on good working practices, appropriate engineering controls and suitable personal protective equipment used correctly.

The Solution

This HSE study, with the cooperation of the Surface Engineering Association, looked at whether repeat biological monitoring could drive sustainable improvements in exposure control by raising individual worker risk awareness and improving worker understanding of exposure pathways.

Workers at 49 electroplating companies took part by providing post-shift urine samples for three consecutive days. These sets of samples were collected at the start of the project then at 6 and 12 month intervals, to assess levels of exposure to chromium and nickel. Following the results of the initial sampling, direct feedback and targeted advice was provided.

Routes of exposure were also investigated by conducting hand wash sampling, taking surface wipes and air sampling.

The Outcome

Many companies were found to be controlling exposures within the current guidelines, although there were still areas for improvement. In 15 of the 49 companies, more than half the workers had elevated urinary nickel levels; the same was true for urinary chromium levels at 13 companies. After HSE gave feedback and guidance, worker exposures were significantly reduced in these companies in the follow-up sampling rounds. Repeat biological monitoring saw reductions in the range of 30 to 40% for nickel and 20 to 30% for chromium.

The graph below shows the reduction in urinary chromium levels for a maintenance worker as a result of advice given after the initial sampling, with follow-up values about one-quarter of the initial values.

Graph showing urinary chromium levels at three stages of the project

The study demonstrated that biological monitoring is a very effective tool for exposure assessment and that repeat testing can drive improvements in exposure control and personal risk awareness, leading to reduced levels of nickel and chromium exposure.

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