- Safety and Health Topics
- Toxic Metals
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.
Workers have the right to:
- Working conditions that do not pose a risk of serious harm.
- Receive information and training (in a language and vocabulary the worker understands) about workplace hazards, methods to prevent them, and the OSHA standards that apply to their workplace.
- Review records of work-related injuries and illnesses.
- File a complaint asking OSHA to inspect their workplace if they believe there is a serious hazard or that their employer is not following OSHA's rules. OSHA will keep all identities confidential.
- Exercise their rights under the law without retaliation, including reporting an injury or raising health and safety concerns with their employer or OSHA. If a worker has been retaliated against for using their rights, they must file a complaint with OSHA as soon as possible, but no later than 30 days.
For additional information, see OSHA's Workers page.
How to Contact OSHA
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces for their employees. OSHA's role is to help ensure these conditions for America's working men and women by setting and enforcing standards, and providing training, education and assistance. For more information, visit www.osha.gov or call OSHA at 1-800-321-OSHA (6742), TTY 1-877-889-5627.
- 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).