Mercury Hazards in the Workplace

What Is Mercury? 

Mercury is a naturally occurring element that is found in air, water and soil. Mercury and its compounds exist in three forms: elemental (or metallic), inorganic, and organic. All mercury compounds are toxic.

Types of Mercury

Metallic Mercury

Metallic Mercury is also called liquid mercury, liquid silver, and quicksilver. It is a dense liquid that vaporizes easily at room temperature. The higher the temperature, the more vapours are released. Mercury vapours are colourless and odourless. Metallic mercury is used in thermometers, monometers, barometers, fluorescent light bulbs, dental amalgam fillings, electrical equipment, and batteries.

Inorganic Mercury

Inorganic Mercury combines with other elements, such as chlorine, sulfur, or oxygen, to form inorganic mercury compounds or "salts", which are usually white powders or crystals. Mercury salts are sometimes used in skin lightening creams and as antiseptic creams and ointments. Used in gold extraction, to produce chlorine gas and caustic soda. Also found in fungicides and rodenticides.  

Organic Mercury

Mercury in the environment combines with carbon to make organic mercury compounds. The most common one, methylmercury, is produced mainly by microscopic organisms in the water and soil. More mercury in the environment can increase the amounts of methylmercury that these small organisms make. Methylmercury is the most hazardous type of mercury. A powerful neurotoxin. Methylmercury is found in fish and older fish have greater levels of mercury. 

Why Is Mercury Harmful to Humans? 

Mercury is a neurotoxin. Most mercury exposures occur by eating fish or shellfish contaminated with methylmercury, breathing vapours in from spills, incinerators, and industries that burn mercury-containing fuels like coal, release of mercury from dental work and medical treatments, and breathing contaminated workplace air or skin contact during use in the workplace. 

How someone's health may be affected by an exposure to mercury depends on a number of factors:

  • The type of mercury
  • The amount of mercury in the exposure
  • The age of the person exposed
  • How long the exposure lasts
  • How the person is exposed
  • The health of the person exposed

The effects of mercury exposure can be very severe, subtle, or may not occur at all, depending on the factors above.   

How Does Mercury Harm My Body?

The nervous system is very sensitive to all forms of mercury. Methylmercury and metallic mercury vapors are more harmful than other forms, because more mercury in these forms reaches the brain. Exposure to high levels of metallic, inorganic, or organic mercury can permanently damage the brain, kidneys, and developing fetus. Effects on brain functioning may result in irritability, shyness, tremors, changes in vision or hearing, and memory problems.  
Short-term exposure to high levels of metallic mercury vapors may cause effects including lung damage, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, increases in blood pressure or heart rate, skin rashes, and eye irritation.

Who Needs To Be Concerned About Mercury Hazards in the Workplace?

Mercury is used in many industries. It’s used to produce chlorine gas and caustic soda, and in thermometers, barometers, batteries, and electrical switches.   

Some examples of workers at risk of being exposed to mercury include the following industries. 

Recycling Fluorescent lights, batteries, and electronics
Construction Switches, toggles, transformers, high-intensity discharge lamps, and thermostats
Manufacturing Facilities where electrical equipment and automotive parts are manufactured. Chemical processing plants that may use mercury.
Health Care & Social Services Older medical equipment such as thermometers, blood pressure cuffs, and manometers. Amalgam fillings in dentistry.
Oil & Gas Pressure and vacuum gauges, barometers, and manometers Piping tanks and vessels
Agriculture Fungicides and pesticides
Art Galleries & Museums Mercury has been used as a preservative in artwork, ethnology and taxidermy collections

How to Prevent Occupational Exposure to Mercury 

If you work in one of the industries mentioned above, you may be at risk of exposure to mercury. To prevent exposure to workers, its important that organizations in these industries have an exposure control plan in place to prevent mercury poisoning. Learn how Chemscape Safety Technologies can help you develop exposure control plans by contacting us today. 


Elevate the level of occupational health standards for your company.