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February 10, 2010

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Recycling firm and director fined GBP 145k for mercury exposure

A Yorkshire recycling company and one of its directors failed to protect workers from exposure to toxic mercury fumes.

Twenty employees, including a pregnant worker, were found to have levels of mercury in their systems that exceeded UK guidance levels, resulting from exposure to the films between October 2007 and August 2008.

Bradford Crown Court, sitting on 5 February, heard that the exposure took place at Electrical Waste Recycling Group Ltd’s plant in Kirkheaton, Huddersfield. The facility is used to recycle electrical equipment, including fluorescent light tubes containing mercury, and television sets and monitors that contain lead.

The light tubes were placed inside a crushing machine so that they could be compressed and recycled. When the tubes were crushed, the mercury vaporised and passed through a filter to collect any risidual dust. But there wasn’t a filter in place to contain the vapour, so it escaped into the atmosphere and circulated around the factory.

The exposure was identified when the Environment Agency carried out a routine inspection to monitor if mercury was being released into the atmosphere. The Agency notified the HSE, which carried out a full investigation to identify the cause of the exposure.

During the investigation, the HSE also discovered that workers were coming into contact with lead. Televisions and monitors were being destroyed inside the crushing machine, and the lead-containing dust created from this process was transferred into bins. These were then moved by workers without the necessary PPE. There was also a lack of washing facilities for them to clean their hands after contact with the dust.

On 11 August 2008, the HSE issued five Improvement Notices instructing the company to seek advice from an occupational hygienist; undertake health surveillance; clean site to remove the dust; put in place control measures to protect workers; and carry out a risk assessment. A Prohibition Notice was also issued to stop fluorescent lamps being recycled until a safe method of work was in place.

HSE inspector Jeanne Morton said: “This is a shocking case involving a large number of employees, many of them young and vulnerable, who were suddenly faced with the worrying possibility of damage to their long-term health.

“The risks associated with handling toxic substances like mercury have been known for generations, so it is all the more unacceptable that something like this has happened.”

Electrical Waste Recycling Group Ltd pleaded guilty to breaching:

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