Industrial Hygiene (IH) is the science and art engaged in the anticipation, recognition, evaluation, and control of workplace health hazards.  In our last blog about healthcare health hazards, we discussed ethylene oxide, formaldehyde, and glutaraldehyde.  These are the most significant and most common IH hazards in a healthcare setting, but many more remain.  In this blog we highlight mercury and waste anesthetic gases.

Employee exposure to mercury from accidental spills can occur during repair of broken thermometers, sphygmomanometers, or during sterilization and centrifugation of thermometers.  Mercury can also be found in some pressure-sensing instruments (i.e. barometers and sensors in machine rooms), as well as electronic equipment and some older medical devices. If spills are not promptly cleaned up, mercury can accumulate on surfaces and then vaporize and be inhaled by unaware workers. Mercury can also be absorbed through the skin.  Short exposure to high levels of mercury can cause severe respiratory irritation, digestive disturbances, and marked renal damage.  Chronic exposure to mercury may result in weakness, fatigue, anorexia, weight loss, and disturbance of gastrointestinal function.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) permissible exposure limit (PEL) for mercury vapor is 0.1 mg/m3 (milligrams per cubic meter) based on an eight-hour time-weighted average.  The American Council of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) set their recommended limit (TLV) at one fourth of that value, or 0.025 mg/m3.  These levels are low and easily exceeded when mercury is spilled or otherwise released in the work environment.  Additionally, the cleanup values established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can be hard to achieve and can keep affected areas of your facility unusable for extended periods of time.  Cleanup can be a challenge because the liquid metal can seep into nooks and crannies and continue to produce vapors.  ATC has discovered liquid mercury under cabinets or in u-drains where mercury is no longer used.

Waste anesthetic gases include nitrous oxide and halogenated agents (vapors) such as: Enflurane, Isoflurane, Sevoflurane, Desflurane and Halothane.  Exposure occurs from poor work practices (spills), leaking gas-line connections, inadequate maintenance of anesthesia machines, and patient exhalation in the recovery room.  Potential adverse health effects of exposure to waste anesthetic gases include loss of consciousness, nausea, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, irritability, drowsiness, problems with coordination and judgment, sterility, miscarriages, birth defects, cancer, and liver and kidney disease.  A more detailed discussion of this matter is available at

Health hazards are often hard to see.  They are insidious and do not present like the needle sticks, back strains, and slips, trips and falls that dominate healthcare facilities’ accident files.  A good hospital protects the health of its employees as well as its patients.

ATC provides industrial hygiene, environmental, storage tank management, and health and safety compliance services for the healthcare market throughout the United States. Contact us if we can be of assistance.

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Spotlight on ATC’s Matthew S. Parker, MS, CIH, CSP, ARM

Matthew is a Certified Industrial Hygienist, a Certified Safety Professional, and an Associate in Risk Management with over thirty years’ experience.  He holds an M.S. degree in System Safety Management and a B.S. degree in Industrial Hygiene/Chemistry.  Matthew was commissioned an Industrial Hygiene Officer in the U.S. Navy and progressed from a staff industrial hygienist to Safety, Health and Environmental Manager for a Ship Repair Facility.  He left active duty in 1992 and became an Environmental, Safety and Health Consultant for an insurance brokerage and a DOE contractor.  He was most recently the Safety, Health and Environmental Manager for a Chemical Manufacturer.  He is currently a National Program Director for ATC Group Services. He retired from the Naval Reserves in 2008 as a Commander, having served as an Industrial Hygiene Officer for Surface, Air, and Marine forces.  He has also served the safety profession by rising through all officer positions in the ASSE Augusta and Atlanta Chapters to Area Director for the Georgia and North Florida.

Connect with Matthew on LinkedIn or drop him a line.