Protecting Workers from Mercury in Fluorescent Lightbulbs

Although fluorescent lightbulbs may be more energy efficient, they do contain mercury, which can pose serious health effects to workers depending upon exposure route, duration and level of exposure. Our nervous system and kidneys are sensitive to mercury and it can also harm unborn children. Signs of mercury poisoning include mild tremors, subtle effects on mood, impaired memory and coordination, and skin irritation or allergy. Signs of exposure to higher levels of metallic mercury can include coughing, chest discomfort, difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, sore gums, eye irritation, severe tremors and changes in behavior or vision.

When do workers have exposure potential? 

If fluorescent light bulbs are crushed or broken, mercury vapor can be released and pose a health hazard to the workers handling the bulbs either by inhalation or skin absorption.  In addition, the small amount of liquid mercury contained in the bulb can fall to the floor where vapor can continue to be released until the spill is cleaned up.  Workers that may be at risk of exposure would include anyone handling these bulbs, such as custodians and maintenance personnel who may be involved in replacement of bulbs and collecting the bulbs as universal waste for recycling.  In addition,  employees of recycling centers have a greater risk of exposure due to the volume of bulbs they are exposed to  if the bulbs arrive to the center in a crushed or broken condition, if bulbs are accidentally broken outside crushing machines, or if the ventilation system is not working properly.

How can you protect employees?

  1. Carefully store unused bulbs (to keep them intact) and keep them away from workers.
  2. Ensure that the bulbs are labeled.
  3. Handle bulbs carefully, and train workers on the hazards of mercury.
  4. Store used bulbs in universal waste accumulation areas  in closed boxes or drums to prevent breakage.  This area should be removed from forklift traffic and other potential causes of damage to the bulbs.  Ensure that your universal waste accumulation areas meet EPA guidelines for labeling,etc.
  5. Create a clean-up plan so workers know how to safely clean up broken bulbs.

How can you safety clean up broken bulbs?

According to OSHA:

  1. Notify workers and tell them to stay away from the area.
  2. Open any windows and doors to air out the room.
  3. Do not use a broom or vacuum cleaner unless the vacuum cleaner is specifically designed to collect mercury.
  4. Wear appropriate disposable chemical-resistant gloves.
  5. Use a commercial mercury spill kit if available, or scoop up pieces of glass and powder with stiff paper or cardboard to avoid contact with the broken glass.
  6. Use sticky tape to pick up any remaining pieces of glass.
  7. Wipe down hard floors with a damp paper towel.
  8. Place all pieces of glass and cleanup materials in a sealable plastic bag or a glass jar with a lid.
  9. Wash your hands thoroughly after cleanup.

Remember that mercury exposure from crushed and broken bulbs is an occupational exposure that requires compliance with OSHA.  Citations could potentially be issued under the Hazard Communication, PPE, HAZWOPER, Air Contaminants, and Housekeeping standards as well as the General Duty Clause for failure to protect employees.  OSHA issued a Quick Card and Fact Sheet on mercury exposures from fluorescent lightbulbs on July 31, 2012.

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