Toxic metals, including "heavy metals," are individual metals and metal compounds that negatively affect people's health. Some toxic, semi-metallic elements, including arsenic and selenium, are discussed in this page. In very small amounts, many of these metals are necessary to support life. However, in larger amounts, they become toxic. They may build up in biological systems and become a significant health hazard. This page provides a starting point for technical and regulatory information about toxic metals.
Common sources of exposure to higher-than-average levels of arsenic include near or in hazardous waste sites and areas with high levels naturally occurring in soil, rocks, and water. Exposure to high levels of arsenic can cause death.
Elemental beryllium has a wide variety of applications. Occupational exposure most often occurs in mining, extraction, and in the processing of alloy metals containing beryllium. Beryllium can cause sensitization, lung and skin disease in a significant percentage of exposed workers.
Cadmium is an extremely toxic metal commonly found in industrial workplaces, particularly where any ore is being processed or smelted. Several deaths from acute exposure have occurred among welders who have unsuspectingly welded on cadmium-containing alloys or with silver solders.
Calcium chromate, chromium trioxide, lead chromate, strontium chromate, and zinc chromate are known human carcinogens. An increase in the incidence of lung cancer has been observed among workers in industries that produce chromate and manufacture pigments containing chromate.
Occupational exposure to lead is one of the most prevalent overexposures. Industries with high potential exposures include construction work, most smelter operations, radiator repair shops, and firing ranges.
Common sources of mercury exposure include mining, production, and transportation of mercury, as well as mining and refining of gold and silver ores. High mercury exposure results in permanent nervous system and kidney damage.
How do I find out about employer responsibilities and workers' rights?
Workers have a right to a safe workplace. The law requires employers to provide their employees with safe and healthful workplaces. The OSHA law also prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for exercising their rights under the law (including the right to raise a health and safety concern or report an injury). For more information see www.whistleblowers.gov or Workers' rights under the OSH Act.
OSHA can help answer questions or concerns from employers and workers. To reach your regional or area OSHA office, go to the OSHA Offices by State webpage or call 1-800-321-OSHA (6742).
Small business employers may contact OSHA's free and confidential On-site Consultation program to help determine whether there are hazards at their worksites and work with OSHA on correcting any identified hazards. Consultants in this program from state agencies or universities work with employers to identify workplace hazards, provide advice on compliance with OSHA standards, and assist in establishing injury and illness prevention programs. On-site Consultation services are separate from enforcement activities and do not result in penalties or citations. To contact OSHA's free consultation service, go to OSHA's On-site Consultation web page or call 1-800-321-OSHA (6742) and press number 4.
Workers may file a complaint to have OSHA inspect their workplace if they believe that their employer is not following OSHA standards or that there are serious hazards. Workers can file a complaint with OSHA by calling 1-800-321-OSHA (6742), online via eComplaint Form, or by printing the complaint form and mailing or faxing it to the local OSHA area office. Complaints that are signed by a worker are more likely to result in an inspection.
If you think your job is unsafe or if you have questions, contact OSHA at 1-800-321-OSHA (6742). Your contact will be kept confidential. We can help. For other valuable worker protection information, such as Workers' Rights, Employer Responsibilities, and other services OSHA offers, visit OSHA's Workers' page.
- National Emphasis Program – Primary Metal Industries. OSHA Directive CPL 03-00-018, (2014, October 20).
- New OSHA National Emphasis Program will help protect workers from chemical and physical hazards in the primary metals industries. OSHA Trade News Release, (2011, June 2).
The following pages include links to OSHA chemical sampling information and OSHA methods. Some of the pages also include information on the exposure risks, exposure limits, and health effects.