Chromium technical fact sheet
Chromium (VI) is a toxic form of the metallic element chromium, and is typically generated through industrial processes. It can be present in solution or solid and can be generated as a dust, fume or mist from workplace activities where chromates, dichromates and chromic acid are used. Adequate controls for the proper use, handling and storage of chromium containing materials reduce the risk of hazardous exposures and illness in the workplace.
The NSW Work Health and Safety (WHS) Roadmap aims to achieve a 50% reduction in serious injuries and illnesses by 2022, including a 30% reduction in exposures to priority hazardous chemicals and materials. An initial list of 100 priority chemicals was developed based on national and international sources. This list was further refined using the following criteria: toxicity rating, exposure potential, estimated quantities used and potential number of workers using these chemicals. Chromium (VI) also known as hexavalent chromium ranked third based on these criteria.
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Sources of exposure
Chromium (VI) is used as an anti-corrosive agent in paint and coatings and can be found in pigments, chromium catalysts, dyes and cements (Portland cement). It is also released during chrome electroplating, welding and hotworking on stainless steel, high chrome alloys or chrome-coated metals, and is released through smelting chromium containing ore.
Exposure to chromium (IV) can occur through direct contact with a liquid solution or solid powdered chromium containing compound. Dust, fumes or mist can also be inhaled. While chromium containing compounds are found across many industries, work activities that may have a high risk of exposure include:
- welding, cutting and hard-facing stainless steel
- manual metal arc welding high chromium steels
- chrome plating
- refractory production
- addition of cement to gravel and sand to make concrete
- leather tanning
- timber preservation using copper chrome arsenate
- textile dying
- handling chrome pigment, for example in paints (during application and removal).
Chromium (VI) mainly affects the respiratory system and skin. Health effects include:
- allergic dermatitis (from skin contact)
- irritation of the airways and asthma (inhalation, even below exposure standard)
- lesions (direct contact with the eye including through contact with aerosol mists)
- chrome ulcers (mainly on the hands and forearms from skin contact)
- ulcers and a perforated septum (acute exposures to high levels)
- chronic respiratory irritation including fluid on the lungs, inflammation, chronic bronchitis, pneumonia and emphysema.
Exposure to chromium (VI) through inhalation may cause lung cancers, however adequate controls such as minimising the generation of fumes, dusts and mists in addition to the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) can minimise any hazardous exposures and prevent illness in the workplace.
Labelling and safety data sheets
Manufacturers and importers of chemicals containing chromium need to ensure they are labelled and that safety data sheets (SDS) are prepared and provided (cl.330 and 335 Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017). Suppliers of a material containing a hazardous chemical to a workplace must provide current SDS (cl.339).
Persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) must correctly label hazardous chemicals used, handled or stored at the workplace, including materials, containers and pipework (cl. 341,342,343). The PCBU must also obtain a copy of the SDS and make it readily accessible to workers involved in using, handling or storing the hazardous chemical at the workplace (cl. 344).
Workplace exposure standards and air monitoring
According to the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017, businesses must ensure that workers are not exposed to airborne chemicals above the workplace exposure standard. Chromium (VI) has a workplace exposure standard of 0.05 mg/m3 averaged over eight hours. Chromium (VI) is classified as a sensitiser and insoluble chromium (VI) is also classified as a carcinogen (1A). Risks to health and safety from exposures to hazardous chemicals must, so far as is reasonably practicable, be eliminated (cl. 35). Where elimination is not practicable, PCBUs must ensure that no person at the workplace is exposed to a substance above its exposure standard (cl. 49) and must reduce exposures so far as is reasonably practicable.
Where it is uncertain (on reasonable grounds) as to whether or not the exposure standard is exceeded, PCBUs must undertake exposure (air) monitoring for substances with an exposure standard (cl. 50). Adjustments to the exposure standards are made for extended work shifts, taking in to account the longer daily exposure. The air monitoring results must be readily available to workers and records of results must be kept for 30 years (cl. 50).
A PCBU must review control measures (cl. 352):
- when the workplace exposure standard for a hazardous chemical has been exceeded
- if a health monitoring report contains advice a worker may have contracted an illness/disease, or a recommendation for remedial measures including whether a worker can continue to work with the hazardous chemical
- the SDS for the hazardous chemical changes.
Chromium (inorganic) is listed in schedule 14 of the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017. PCBUs are required to provide health monitoring to workers if there is a significant risk to the worker’s health because of exposure to a hazardous chemical listed in schedule 14 of the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017 (cl. 368). This includes providing weekly skin checks by a competent person who has been trained.
In relation to health monitoring, PCBU (cl. 369 to 378) duties include:
- informing workers of the requirements for health monitoring
- using a registered medical practitioner with experience in health monitoring
- providing details to the medical practitioner
- obtaining a copy of the health monitoring report
- providing a copy of the health monitoring report to SafeWork NSW if the worker has developed a disease or injury and/or the report contains any recommendations on remedial measures at the workplace
- keeping records of health monitoring for 30 years.
Where risks to health and safety cannot be eliminated the hierarchy of controls must be applied in accordance with cl. 36 of the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017 to minimise risks. For instance:
- Where practicable, substitute chromium (VI) containing or liberating products with an alternate material.
- Ensure adequate engineering controls (eg local exhaust ventilation, surfactants or controls to prevent mist generation from tanks, isolation booths or enclosures) are in place.
- Use appropriate tools or PPE to avoid skin contact with chromium (VI) solutions.
- Use well maintained and appropriate PPE such as respirators, safety goggles and gloves including a program to correctly fit, instruct on the use and ensure regular maintenance of PPE.
- Ensure safety equipment is available (eg eye wash and showers).
Ensure instructions and controls outlined in SDS and product labels are followed and that workers are provided with suitable information, training, instruction and supervision when using, storing and handling hazardous chemicals (cl. 39 and 379).
More information is contained in:
- the chromium containing product's SDS
- NSW codes of practice:
- Safe Work Australia guidance material:
- Workplace Exposure Standards for Airborne Contaminants
- Guidance on the Interpretation of Workplace Exposure Standards for Airborne Contaminants
- Hazardous Chemicals Requiring Health Monitoring
- Health Monitoring for Exposure to Hazardous Chemicals - Guide for persons conducting a business or undertaking
- Health Monitoring for Exposure to Hazardous Chemicals - Guide for workers
- Controlling Risks Associated with Electroplating
- Australian standards
- AS/NZS 1715;2009 Selection, Use and Maintenance of Respiratory Protection
- AS/NZS 4361.1:2017 Guide to hazardous paint management Part 1. Lead and other hazardous metallic pigments in industrial applications.
In the event of suspected exposure, call the Poisons Information Centre on 131 126.