Heavy Metal Testing Should Not be Taken Lightly - Worksite Medical
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As we go about our daily lives, we’re constantly exposed to a variety of substances that can significantly impact our health. One of the most common and insidious threats is heavy metals. As such, heavy metal testing remains one of the most critical components available for protecting your workers, and your bottom line.

These toxic substances can be found in everything from food and water to air and soil. And, they can lead to severe illness, disease, and even death, without the proper safety guidelines in place.

Unfortunately, the effects of heavy metal exposure can devastate the body. Here, we offer some useful tips to help protect your workers through proper testing and prevention methods.

Let’s break it down.


Related Article: Keep Your Worksite Cadmium-Proof with this Checklist.

Related Article: Mercury Exposure Leaves Plant Facing 21 Violations.


What’s In a Name?


Despite the “weighty” name, heavy metals can actually be as light as the air you breathe.

Heavy metals consist of a group of dense elements with a high atomic mass. Found naturally in the earth’s crust, they’re also released into the environment through human activities such as mining, smelting, and burning fossil fuels.

And, similar to air, toxins from those metals can appear invisible. Health risks increase substantially for workers whom endure prolonged exposure to large amounts. With high prevalence on worksites, 35 toxic heavy metals remain a major concern in regard to hazardous exposure.

However, few, if any, remain more extensively regulated than arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, lead, and mercury.




A natural element commonly found in water, rocks and soil, metallic arsenic use in many industries occurs as an alloy agent for solders and heavy metals. Commonly used to preserve pressure-treated lumber, as an agent in pesticides, and for pigmenting, heavy metal testing remains especially critical for workers in these industries.

As per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), workers in industries such as carpentry, copper or lead smelting, electronics manufacturing, and pesticide application remain at the highest risk of exposure.

Arsenic poisoning can occur through chronic or acute exposure, and may cause constriction of veins leading to reduced blood flow and decreased nerve function.

Links to diabetes exist, as well as pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases. In more serious cases, arsenic poisoning can lead to skin, bladder, and/or lung cancer, and may even result in death.

Standard OSHA Requirements: Pre-placement exam; Annual Exam; emergency/exposure examination and tests; termination exam; work and medical history; chest x-ray; respirator fit test; medical professional evaluation.




Beryllium exists as a very light, though extremely strong, highly toxic metal used in aerospace, electronics, energy, telecommunication, and medical/defense industries.

Workers with the highest likelihood of exposure to beryllium operate in beryllium manufacturing, alloy production, and recycling. And, of course, those involved in mining and extraction.

Approximately 62,000 workers who inhale beryllium-contaminated air face an increased risk for beryllium sensitization, lung cancer, and chronic beryllium disease (CBD).

In 2020, OSHA revised its final rule on the beryllium standard for general industry.

Federal Register notice provides a detailed explanation of OSHA’s new and revised provisions.

According to OSHA, the amendments to the standard seek to “clarify certain provisions and simplify or improve compliance.” The agency states that some of the revisions will result in cost savings for employers.

The new final rule, considered as a deregulatory action under presidential Executive Order 13777, “Enforcing the Regulatory Reform Agenda,” was signed in February 2017 to “alleviate unnecessary regulatory burdens” on Americans. The standard as modified took effect from September 14, 2020.




Cadmium exists as a soft, malleable bluish-white metal found in zinc ores. It is most likely to be present on worksites where metal is smelted or refined. Additionally, it occurs in the manufacturing of batteries, plastics, coatings, and solar panels.

More than 300,000 workers remain at risk of exposure through industries such as manufacturing and construction.

Inhalation or ingestion of this highly toxic metal can cause cancer and damage lungs, kidneys, and bones. Cadmium poisoning may also present itself in flu-like symptoms.

See the cadmium compliance checklist here.


Hexavalent Chromium


A toxic form of the element chromium, hexavalent chromium exists as a man-made compound widely used in various industries.

It’s found in chromate pigments (i.e. dyes and paints); ferrochromium ore; and even in Portland cement.  Workers often face exposure during “hot work,” such as welding metals or steel.

Unfortunately, hexavalent chromium remains a known carcinogen. In addition to cancer, this substance can also cause asthma, eye damage, and allergic contact dermatitis.

OSHA maintains specific hexavalent chromium regulations for general industry, shipyards, and construction.




A corrosion-resistant, malleable blue-gray metal, lead occurs naturally in the Earth’s crust.

Lead poisoning is one of the most common heavy metal exposure threats to workers, and has been for thousands of years. As one of the first metals ever used by humans, lead exposure led to the first ever recorded occupational disease – a severe case of lead colic suffered by a metal extractor in the 4th century.

The United States is the third highest lead-producing country on Earth.

Approximately 804,000 general industry workers, along with 838,000 construction workers, endure potential exposure to the metal. Lead exposure occurs mostly in industries such as construction, manufacturing, wholesale trade, transportation, and recreation.

Exposure can also occur during the production and/or use of rechargeable batteries, lead bullets, and radiators. Overexposure via ingestion and inhalation may lead to severe health issues such as lowered blood levels, which results in decreased cognitive function.

Lead can also cause anemia, kidney disease, lung and/or stomach cancer, and even death.

See more about employer responsibilities as they pertain to lead here.




Mercury, a naturally occurring heavy metal, is considered as a transitional metal as it exists in many forms.

At room temperature, the element, often referred to as “quicksilver,” remains liquid, but can quickly turn into a solid or gas.  Workers most likely to face overexposure tend to operate in mining and refinement processes.

Mercury exposure may also occur when fluorescent bulbs break and mercury vapor enters the air.

High levels of exposure can lead to permanent damage of the nervous system and kidneys. Some mercury poisoning symptoms include: mild tremors, mood swings, impaired memory, and skin irritation.

There is no current evidence that mercury is a carcinogen, although mercury chloride and methyl mercury may be linked to cancer.

While no current evidence exists that mercury constitutes a carcinogen, possible links to cancer do exist for mercury chloride and methyl mercury.

See how to keep workers protected from mercury exposure here.


Heavy Metal Testing: The Lab Screening Process


Even though these heavy metals differ, the use of heavy-metal panels can test for all of them in a single screening.

These panels are performed in a group of tests tailored to an employee’s occupation, symptoms, and suspected exposure. A broad panel may be ordered by a qualified medical professional if he/she suspects that an employee has been acutely or chronically exposed to more than one heavy metal.

Similarly, if the medical professional believes that an employee has been exposed to one specific metal, such as lead, he/she may choose to order one test.

While heavy metal is typically regulated on most worksites (i.e. required PPE), health screening within a comprehensive medical surveillance program is necessary.

According to OSHA, the purpose of medical surveillance “is to supplement the main thrust of the standard which is aimed at minimizing airborne concentrations of lead [and other heavy metals] and sources of ingestion.

Only medical surveillance can determine if the other provisions of the standard have effectively protected you as an individual.”


Why is Heavy Metal Testing Important?


Heavy metal testing is important for several reasons. It can help:

  • Identify the presence of heavy metals in your body, which can be used to develop a plan to reduce your exposure
  • Monitor the effectiveness of treatments for heavy metal exposure
  • Identify individuals who remain at risk of heavy metal exposure, such as those who work with heavy metals or live in areas with high levels of heavy metal contamination
  • Keep your company in compliance with safety rules and regulations, and avoid expensive fines and lawsuits.


The Cost of Non-Compliance


OSHA penalties and fines for noncompliance with heavy metal regulations vary case by case.

However, when employers sacrifice safety and precaution for efficiency and cost savings, they can expect to pay in more ways than one.

In 2016, two-thirds of a Wisconsin-based shipyard’s workforce — 177 out of 233 —  tested positive for lead poisoning. OSHA sampling results found that 14 workers had lead levels of up to 20 times the permissible exposure limit.

The administration cited 14 willful health violations for each instance where workers were overexposed; as well as five violations for failing to screen employees for exposure, failure to create a compliance program for lead, and failure to provide training on lead and asbestos hazards.

“This employer was unwilling to pay the necessary costs to protect employees from lead exposure,” OSHA’s assistant secretary of labor Dr. David Michaels said.

“When companies prioritize profits and deadlines over the health and safety of their workforce, it is the workers who pay the price. Law-breaking employers must be held accountable for their unlawful behavior.”

The company faced nearly $1.4 million in fines and paid a settlement of $700,000.


Managing a Medical Surveillance Program


It’s time to stop viewing medical surveillance as an administrative burden, especially when there are companies that can do it for you.

Scheduling, tracking medical records, and doing it all correctly is easy — especially with mobile units that can come directly to your worksite.

Are you in compliance?


On-Site Medical Surveillance


In most cases, OSHA requires medical surveillance testing, and at no cost to employees.

Worksite Medical makes that program easier with mobile medical testing.

With Worksite Medical, you can get all the resources of a lab brought directly to your worksite. We’ll tailor a comprehensive medical surveillance program to your specific needs. Our services include physical testing, heavy metal labs, PPE fit testing, x-rays, audiometric exams, and much more. And, we safely maintain all of your team’s medical records, and provide you with quick access.

You’ll keep your employees at work, and stay ahead of OSHA inspections.

Protect your team and your workplace now with Worksite Medical. Not sure what you need? Try our medical testing wizard here.

Give us a call at 1-844-622-8633, or complete the form below to schedule an on-site visit or to get your free quote.

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