As workers are the first to be exposed to materials in the workplace, it to important to take measures to keep workers safe while performing tasks associated with recycling electronic waste.
By Adrienne Eastlake, MS, RS/REHS, MT(ASCP), Jessica Ramsey, MS, CPE, and George Grimes, MD
The scrap waste industry employs more than 500,000 people and contributes approximately over $116 billion annually to the U.S. economy (ISRI, 2021). Electronics recycling is a subset of the scrap waste industry that employs over 50,000 employees. There is no U.S. federal law that requires recycling of electronic waste. Since 2003, 28 states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation setting up electronic waste recycling programs. More than 130 million metric tons of materials were recycled in 2020. As workers are the first to be exposed to materials in the workplace, it is important to take measures to keep workers safe while performing tasks associated with recycling of electronic waste.
A review of Bureau of Labor Statistics illness, injury, and fatality data for the Wholesale and Retail Trade sector (Anderson et al. 2019) found that the fatality rate for the wholesale subsector ‘recyclable materials’ was nearly seven times higher than the overall private industry rate in 2016. Of 17 deaths in this subsector, seven were caused by transportation incidents and six were caused by contact with objects and equipment. Chemical exposure (such as metals) via inhalation, skin contact, or ingestion is also a key concern when workers are handling and processing electronics waste.
Health Hazard Evaluations
Between 2013 and 2017, NIOSH performed health hazard evaluations at a variety of U.S. electronic scrap recycling facilities. These evaluations involved comprehensive exposure and risk assessments of workers performing tasks associated with electronic scrap recycling. These tasks included: shipping and receiving, shredding and sorting, refurbishing and resale, manual disassembly, and office work.
What are the Possible Health Hazards and How Were They Evaluated?
• Air monitoring—To determine if metals are present in the air that could be inhaled by workers’ or deposited on work surfaces, hands, and/or skin
• Dermal wipe sampling—To determine whether metals were found on the workers’ hands and/or skin
• Surface wipe sampling—To determine whether metals were found on work surfaces, which provides information about the extent of housekeeping within the facility, possible cross contamination, and if workers were performing personal cleaning (such as handwashing)
• Biological monitoring—Collection of blood and/or urine samples from workers to determine their degree of exposure to a specific metal
• Investigation of flame retardants
What are the Possible Hazards Found in Electronics Recycling Workplaces?
• Hazardous materials including the following:
o Metals (such as beryllium, lead, cadmium, chromium, copper, and silver)
o Flame retardants
o Endocrine disrupters
• Other important hazards also found in other workplaces include:
o Slips, trips, and falls, leading to injuries
o Ergonomic hazards, leading to musculoskeletal disorders
o Contact with moving objects, such as vehicles or forklifts, leading to injuries or fatalities
o Sustained noise levels at or above 85 decibels, leading to hearing damage
Identifying the Hazards in an Electronics Recycling Facility and Controlling the Workplace Risks, Hierarchy of Control and Prevention through Design
Workplace recommendations are based on an approach known as the hierarchy of controls (Figure 1). NIOSH leads a national initiative called Prevention through Design to prevent or reduce occupational injuries, illnesses, and fatalities through the inclusion of prevention considerations in all designs that impact workers. The hierarchy of controls includes a Prevention through Design strategy. The hierarchy of controls groups actions by their likely effectiveness in reducing or removing hazards. In most cases, the preferred approach is to eliminate or substitute hazardous materials or processes. If that cannot be achieved, then install engineering controls to reduce exposure or shield employees. These can include local exhaust ventilation or equipment shields. Until such controls are in place, or if they are not effective or feasible, administrative measures (such as safety training and rotating worker shifts) and personal protective equipment (the least effective protection) may be needed. Administrative controls are worker-based policies and procedures to minimize potential occupational risks. In electronics recycling, administrative controls may consist of workplace training, signage, changing processes to minimize exposure to high-risk tasks, and/or rotating worker shifts to decrease exposure. Personal protective equipment is the least effective way to protect workers as it puts the responsibility on the worker to correctly wear and use the equipment. When performing warehouse work, it is recommended that workers in electronics recycling use cut-resistant gloves, eye, and ear protection. Specific tasks, such as clean up of cathode tubes, my require additional protection such as chemical resistant gloves.
It is important to perform a risk assessment as part of the risk management process within the workplace. Once hazard and exposure identification have been performed, this information will inform the potential risks present within the workplace (Figure 2). As part of a risk management program, it is important to ensure that effective controls are in place and that employees are trained as to the requirements necessary to eliminate risk. Prior to work, all employees should be trained on the safe performance of all required work tasks. Training should occur routinely and should be updated on a regular basis or when materials handled/tasks change. It is important to note that risk assessment and risk management are a continuous loop: anticipate and recognize the hazard, evaluate the hazard, and control and confirm employee protection from the hazard. Risk management allows you to use the hierarchy of controls to choose the controls and programs that will keep the workplace safe.
Hazards within the electronics recycling industry can be decreased with proper risk management. Based on several NIOSH exposure and risk assessments within this industry, we have some workplace practices to consider related to the hazardous materials associated with electronics recycling.
What the Employer Can Do
• Exposure to tasks that increase the potential for hazards to be inhaled or deposited on skin should be limited:
o High energy tasks, such as electronics shredding or the use of compressed air to clean, are more likely to increase hazard exposure potential.
o Prohibit dry sweeping. When cleaning up spills, use wet cleaning methods or high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters when vacuuming.
• Make use of preventive employee health and safety programs and include all employees in lead and/or metal monitoring programs.
• Implement a formal policy and educate employees on the importance of handwashing and supply lead-removal products.
• Install emergency stop cords along conveyors.
• Install shields to decrease access to high-risk pinch points and machinery.
• Maintain a respiratory protection program per state or federal standards.
• Train all employees on all facility safety policies and procedures.
• Supply all required personal protective equipment.
• Offer a smoking cessation program to employees.
What the Worker Can Do
• Wash hands using workplace-provided lead-removing product after removal of gloves, after completion of tasks, before eating, and before leaving work.
• Do not dry sweep. Use wet wiping methods or HEPA vacuums instead.
• Do not eat, drink, chew gum, smoke, or apply makeup within work areas.
• Use all required personal protective equipment correctly.
• If you smoke, participate in a smoking cessation program.
The Importance of Risk Assessments
It is important to perform a risk assessment as part of the risk management process within the workplace. Once hazard and exposure identification have been performed, this information will inform the potential risks present within the workplace. As part of a risk management program, it is important to ensure that effective controls are in place and that employees are trained as to the requirements necessary to eliminate risk. | WA
Important Lessons Learned
• Local exhaust ventilation and shielding is more effective than personal protective equipment.
• High energy tasks, such as electronics shredding or the use of compressed air to clean, are more likely to increase hazard exposure potential.
• Preventive employee health and safety programs help monitor and prevent the risk of worker exposure.
• Safety and health training should be required for all workers that may have exposure to the workplace, including office and janitorial staff.
• Encourage handwashing using lead-removing product after removal of gloves, after completion of tasks, before eating, and before leaving work.
Adrienne Eastlake, MS, RS/REHS, MT(ASCP), is a Research Industrial Hygienist in the Division of Science Integration Science Applications Branch and Co-Coordinator of Wholesale and Retail Trade program at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Jessica Ramsey, MS, CPE, is an Industrial Hygienist in the Division of Field Studies and Engineering Hazard Evaluation and Technical Assistance Branch at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
George Grimes, MD is a Director in the Division of Injury Compensation programs, Health Systems Bureau, Health Resources and Services Administration.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is a federal research agency that was created as part of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA, 1970). NIOSH serves to develop new knowledge in the field of occupational safety and health and to help transfer that knowledge into practice. By supplying guidance and recommendations based on quality research, NIOSH helps maintain a safe and healthy workplace for all workers within the U.S. More information and recommended workplace practices are available in the NIOSH health hazard evaluation reports. If you have more questions or concerns, NIOSH can help employers or employees seeking occupational safety and health guidance, reach out to Adrienne Eastlake at [email protected].
Disclaimer: The findings and conclusions in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
• Anderson (Putz) V, Schulte, PA, Novakovich J, Pfirman D, Bhattacharya, A . Wholesale and retail trade sector occupational fatal and nonfatal injuries and illnesses from 2006–2016: implications for intervention. Am J Ind Med. DOI:10.1002/ajim.23063
• ISRI. 2019. Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc. Economic Impact Study, U.S.-Based Scrap Recycling Industry. John Dunham & Associates. www.isri.org/docs/default-source/default-document-library/executive-summary-fastweb.pdf?sfvrsn=ee686d12_2 (Accessed online 7/12/21)
• NIOSH [2018a]. Evaluation of exposure to metals, flame retardants, and nanomaterials at an electronics recycling company. By Beaucham CC, Ceballos D, Page EH, Mueller C, Calafat AM, Sjodin A, Ospina M, La Guardia M, Glassford E. Cincinnati, OH: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Health Hazard Evaluation Report 2015-0050-3308, www.cdc.gov/niosh/hhe/reports/pdfs/2015-0050-3308.pdf.
• NIOSH [2018b]. Evaluation of exposure to metals at an electronics recycling
facility. By Grimes GR, Beaucham CC, Ramsey JG. Cincinnati, OH: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Health Hazard Evaluation Report 2016-0242-3315, www.cdc.gov/niosh/hhe/reports/pdfs/2016-0242-3315.pdf.
• NIOSH [2019a]. Evaluation of exposure to metals and flame retardants at an electronics recycling company. By Grimes GR, Beaucham CC, Grant, MP, Ramsey JG. Cincinnati, OH: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Health Hazard Evaluation Report 2016-0257-3333, www.cdc.gov/niosh/hhe/reports/pdfs/2016-0257-3333.pdf.
• NIOSH [2019b]. Evaluation of exposures to metals and flame retardants at an electronics recycling company. By Ramsey JG, Grimes GR, Beaucham CC. Cincinnati, OH: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Health Hazard Evaluation Report 2017-0013-3356, www.cdc.gov/niosh/hhe/reports/pdfs/2017-0013-3356.pdf
• OSHA . Occupational Safety and Health Act. www.osha.gov/laws-regs/oshact/completeoshact