Communities rely on workers in mining, manufacturing, and other sectors to produce the materials and products that make life more comfortable. Rarely do people stop and think that many of these industries pose a clear and present danger to employees. Many of us live under the impression that organizations, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), rooted out hazardous materials such as asbestos and crystalline silica dust years ago. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The increased need for metal and elements to develop our advanced technologies come at a price. The men and women who work with a material called “cadmium” may find themselves unknowingly at risk. Cadmium toxicity can result in serious health problems, including organ failure and cancer. That’s why OSHA established a permissible exposure limit for cadmium, and employers are required to follow stringent workplace safety guidelines that include providing personal protective equipment and disposable clothing. Understanding the dangers and need for cadmium safety precautions could save an employee's life.

What is Cadmium?

Primarily found in zinc ores, this soft metal is also present in greenockite minerals. The vast majority of usable cadmium is culled from zinc byproducts and outdated batteries. The bluish-white metal was reportedly discovered in the early 19th Century by German chemist Friedrich Strohmeyer, after a routine pharmacy evaluation regarding zinc usage. He later separated the previously unknown element in the laboratory. It evolved into an essential material in the development of nickel-cadmium batteries.

Cadmium now enjoys wide-reaching industrial applications that include solar cells, alloys, and electroplating, among many others. The element also works as a neutron stabilizer in nuclear power reactors, and it continues to rival lithium-ion batteries used in numerous hand-held devices. Battery industry insiders generally agree that lithium-ion battery use will continue to grow but so will nickel-cadmium products as well. In addition, many anticipate increased investment in sustainable solar energy, despite cadmium toxicity data.

Where is Cadmium Found?

It’s essential to understand that cadmium has not been unearthed in abundant quantities. Greenockite ranks as the only mineral that possesses the element. Cadmium is found in copper, lead, and zinc ores that include sphalerite. These mineral deposits persist in countries that include the United States, Bolivia, Guatemala, Hungary, Kazakhstan, and more. Cadmium is typically produced at zinc mining and refinement facilities. China, Japan, Korea, Mexico, India, Peru, Germany, and the United States rank among the world’s leading cadmium producers.

What is Cadmium Used for?

Due to its flexible commercial applications, cadmium impacted the health and wellbeing of nearly 300,000 people during the 1990s, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Reports also indicate that more than 500,000 Americans suffer negative cadmium health effects such as poisoning in the workplace each year. Work environments that face cadmium exposure include the following.

  • Alloy Manufacturing Plants
  • Aluminum Solder Plants
  • Ammunition Facilities
  • Automobile Mechanics
  • Cadmium Platers and Welders
  • Dental Amalgam Manufacturers
  • Electronic Device Manufacturing
  • Electroplating and Engraving
  • Nickel-Cadmium Battery Factories
  • Paint Manufacturing and Spraying
  • Pharmaceutical Settings
  • Pigment Manufacturing Operations
  • Pottery, Ceramics and Glass Facilities
  • Recycling Plants and Landfills
  • Smelting and Metal Refineries
  • Zinc Mining and Refineries

It’s also crucial for everyday people to know that cadmium health effects extend to cigarette users and those who inhale second-hand smoke. Approximately 50 percent of the substance found in cigarettes is absorbed through the lungs while people actively smoke. Data indicates that a smoker’s body suffers double the cadmium burden of a non-smoker. Hobbyists who routinely work with products laced with cadmium are also considered at higher risk.

How are Employees Exposed?

Cadmium safety precautions are crucial in industries that utilize the substance because exposure carries dire consequences. Health and workplace safety agencies widely agree that exposure remains a persistent issue. That’s largely why OSHA and other regulatory bodies have issued guidelines to eliminate unnecessary exposure and safeguard workers against negative cadmium health effects. The guidelines require safety supervisors to make workers acutely aware of the risk and provide adequate personal protective clothing and gear. Protecting employee health and wellbeing requires strict adherence to cadmium safety precautions because exposure occurs too often. These are common ways workers unknowingly suffer cadmium poisoning.

  • Inhalation: Although cigarette smoke continues to plague people with cadmium toxicity, industries that utilize the substance reportedly pose thousands of times the risk of other spaces. The OSHA permissible exposure limit for cadmium sets a standard for workplace fumes and ambient air that remains higher than the daily exposure in non-industry spaces. The OSHA cadmium standard in the workplace remains above oxygen in industrial urban areas in many cases. As a result, people who smoke cigarettes and work in sectors prone to cadmium exposure remain at heightened risk of sustaining toxic cadmium health effects.
  • Ingestion: One of the difficulties industries encounter in terms of mitigating health risks is the fact cadmium remains active in the water supply. Traces of this naturally occurring element persist in the soil and water tables of countries such as Japan. Commercial and industrial use of the metal can result in transfers to drinking water when cleanup crews do not dispose of dust properly. But frontlines employees too often ingest dust when face protections are not in place. Cadmium dust can also infiltrate ear passages and get into a worker’s eyes.

Perhaps the only good news when combating potential cadmium toxicity is that contact with the skin typically does not result in poisoning. However, workers are more prone to dust accumulating on clothing and transferring, which is why disposable protective clothing ranks among the primary defenses against exposure.

What are the Symptoms of Cadmium Toxicity?

Like other workplace health hazards, cadmium presents a risk from both intense short-term exposure and the cumulative effect of long-term exposure. Overexposure to cadmium typically presents with symptoms that involve fatigue, nausea, abdominal cramping, and fever. Cases of cadmium toxicity that have progressed may result in the following extreme symptoms.

  • Diminished Lung Capacity
  • Buildup of Fluid in the Lungs
  • Breathlessness
  • Racing Heartbeat
  • Yellowing of the Teeth
  • Discoloration of the Skin
  • Loss of Smell
  • Insomnia
  • High Blood Pressure

Prolonged exposure that results in cadmium poisoning can damage bone cells, impact the kidneys and liver, as well as cause cancer. These are reasons why industry leaders must provide certified personal protective equipment and disposable clothing to workers. It’s also why the OSHA cadmium standard was established.

What is OSHA’s Cadmium Standard?

OSHA sets a permissible exposure limit for cadmium, also known as PEL, that applies equally across the board to all industries, with the exception of construction. Cadmium PEL rates for construction-related occupations fall under different guidelines because OSHA determined that cadmium exposure and duration on construction sites require unique attention. The general PEL rate sets a maximum of airborne concentrations of cadmium no more than five micrograms per cubic meter of air during an 8-hour shift on average. The OSHA cadmium standard tasks employers with monitoring PEL rates and ensuring employees are not exposed to higher concentrations. Such methods include the following.

  • The 8-hour PEL rate shall be determined based on air samples from specific breathing zones.
  • These samples must reflect employees’ job descriptions and work zone.
  • Representative samples taken from the workforce must be based on the highest concentration, not an average.

Employers who anticipate some level of cadmium exposure are required to possess mitigation solutions and personal protective equipment.

What PPE is Recommended When Working with Cadmium?

Everyday people who work in environments that utilize cadmium are required to have personal protective equipment and disposable clothing available. In addition, OSHA regulations mandate that companies must provide these vital health and safety protections at no expense to the workforce. The potentially life-saving protective wear includes the following.

Employers are also required to ensure protocols and best practices remain in place to minimize the spread of cadmium. Protective clothing products should be stripped off only in a designated changing room. OSHA mandates that no personal protective clothing or equipment leaves the facility following a shift.

Potentially contaminated items must be secured and disposed of in a safe and orderly fashion that minimizes potential cross-contamination. Used protective wear should be collected in place and place in a plastic bag that can be adequately secured. After removing protective wear, employees must have a separate space available to them where street clothes are stored, and workers can change away from the cadmium containment space.

The need for employee awareness and training about cadmium safety precautions cannot be understated. Like crystalline silica dust, asbestos, and other fine materials that go airborne during commercial processes, the risk to workers remains significant. However, the negative cadmium health effects people suffer are entirely preventable through knowledge and the determined use of disposable personal protective clothing. International Enviroguard produces a complete line of disposable safety clothing that exceeds industry standards.

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