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OSHA’s Bright Idea: Protect Workers from Mercury in Fluorescent Light Bulbs

Aug. 2, 2012
Compact fluorescent light bulbs might be long lasting and environmentally friendly, but they also pose a potentially serious health risk when crushed or broken: mercury poisoning. OSHA offers two new resources to help employers ensure their workers are protected when handling fluorescent bulbs.

Chances are, you have them in your home or workplace: compact fluorescent light bulbs, which environmental advocates praise for their energy conservation and long operating lives. But a hidden hazard – mercury – lurks in these bulbs, and employers must ensure workers are protected.

If fluorescent light bulbs are crushed or broken, mercury vapor can be released and pose a health hazard to the workers handling the bulbs. Depending on the duration and level of exposure, mercury can cause nervous system disorders such as tremors, kidney problems and damage to unborn children.

To address those potential risks, and to help employees better protect their workers who may recycle or otherwise dispose of fluorescent bulbs, OSHA has released a new fact sheet and quick card. The fact sheet explains how workers may be exposed, what kinds of engineering controls and personal protective equipment are required, and how to use these controls and equipment properly.

“When a fluorescent bulb accidentally breaks, mercury in the glass tube is released and a small amount of mercury vapor enters the air. A small amount of liquid mercury falls to the ground, where it continues to evaporate to form a vapor,” the fact sheet explains. “Workers are primarily exposed by breathing in vapors. Exposure can also occur by skin contact.”

The fact sheet also outlines symptoms of mercury poisoning, which include mild tremors, impaired memory and coordination and skin irritation.

OSHA’s new Quick Card, “Avoiding Mercury Exposure from Fluorescent Bulbs,” which is available in both English and Spanish, outlines the hazards of mercury and provides information on how to properly clean up accidently broken fluorescent bulbs to minimize workers’ exposures to mercury. The Quick Card’s safe cleanup guidelines include:

  • Notify workers and tell them to stay away from the area.
  • Open any windows and doors to air out the room.
  • Do not use a broom or vacuum cleaner unless the vacuum cleaner is specifically designed to collect mercury.
  • Wear appropriate disposable chemical-resistant gloves.
  • 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.
  • Use sticky tape to pick up any remaining pieces of glass.
  • Wipe down hard floors with a damp paper towel.
  • Place all pieces of glass and cleanup materials in a sealable plastic bag or a glass jar with a lid.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly after cleanup.

“Proper cleanup will reduce workers’ exposure to the low levels of mercury anticipated when a fluorescent bulb is accidentally broken,” the Quick Card states.

Download the Quick Card and fact sheet as PDFs to learn more.

About the Author

Laura Walter

Laura Walter was formerly senior editor of EHS Today. She is a subject matter expert in EHS compliance and government issues and has covered a variety of topics relating to occupational safety and health. Her writing has earned awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), the Trade Association Business Publications International (TABPI) and APEX Awards for Publication Excellence. Her debut novel, Body of Stars (Dutton) was published in 2021.

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