NIOSH Highlights Occupational Exposures at Electronic Scrap Recycling Facilities

In an ongoing effort to better document occupational hazards faced by employees who handle the recycling of electronics, NIOSH has completed exposure evaluations at several electronics recycling facilities across the U.S. A health hazard evaluation report released in September documents the agency’s evaluation in 2012 of occupational exposures at one electronic scrap recycling facility.

“A lot of the electronics that were being processed at the facility were old cathode ray tubes (CRTs) and televisions,” said Elena Page, MD, MPH, a medical officer with the NIOSH Hazard Evaluations and Technical Assistance Branch in the Division of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluations, and Field Studies. “Even with the increased use of smartphones and other mobile devices, the old technologies make up the majority of what’s being recycled.”
Page and her colleagues visited the facility five times over the course of a year and collected air samples for metals, dust, and crystalline silica; surface wipe samples for metals; and blood and urine samples for metals. Their findings are available at
NIOSH found that one employee was overexposed to lead in air, and two had elevated blood lead levels above 10 μg/dL. Two employees were overexposed to cadmium in air.
“Employees in facilities that process CRT glass, including those working in areas away from where the glass is processed, can be overexposed to lead and cadmium,” said Diana Ceballos, PhD, CIH, MS, an industrial hygienist who also works in the NIOSH Division of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluations and Field Studies, and who led this health hazard evaluation. “Poor work practices such as dry sweeping can migrate toxic metals to other work areas, which was definitely the case in this facility.”
According to Page, although workers with blood lead levels around 10 μg/dL aren’t likely to experience acute symptoms of lead overexposure, they could develop chronic health issues such as kidney problems, tremors, hypertension, and various adverse neurocognitive effects.
Ceballos, Page, and their co-investigators also discovered that employees were overexposed to noise during CRT buffing and grinding, shredder sorting, forklift driving, and baling. In addition, employees were exposed to ergonomic risk factors, including extreme working postures, forceful exertions, and repetitive motions. Given the potential for such a wide variety of occupational exposures in electronic scrap recycling, the NIOSH researchers believe the industry must be educated to help protect employee health.
“Employers in this industry shouldn’t refer to the current OSHA lead standard because it is not protective of workers,” said Page. 
Page and Ceballos instead point to more stringent voluntary standards for electronic recyclers from other certification bodies, such as the e-Stewards Standard for Responsible Recycling and Reuse of Electronic Equipment, the Recycling Industry Operating Standard (RIOS), and the Responsible Recycling Standard for Electronics Recyclers (R2), as better resources to protect workers in electronic scrap recycling.
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