3 Toxic “Heavy” Metals Common in Industrial Exposure Cases

Occupational hazards such as heavy metal exposures can result in illnesses, permanent bodily harm or death. It is crucial to understand what hazards your workplace holds and how to test for the prevalence of these materials. 

In addition to dangers posed to yourself and coworkers, workplaces can also be producing pollutants that affect wastewater and air quality. 

The EPA regulates 13 priority metals due to how frequently traces have been found in wastewater.

In addition to air, water and industrial exposure, the National Organization for Rare Disorders warns that people are exposed to poisonous metals through foods, medicines, food containers and paint.  

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has created technical and regulatory information about multiple metals. Here are three of the most common: 


Arsenic is naturally found in the earth’s crust. Most people are exposed to arsenic through either soil, rocks or water. Unhealthy over-exposures to arsenic have been reported most consistently from drinking water. 

The United States is one of multiple countries that has drinking water with high levels of inorganic arsenic. 

According to OSHA, workers may also be exposed to above-average levels of arsenic in or near hazardous waste sites.

The World Health Organization states that arsenic is also used in the following products:

  • Glass
  • Pigments
  • Textiles
  • Paper
  • Metal adhesives
  • Wood preservatives
  • Ammunition 
  • Pesticides (to a “limited extent”)
  • Pharmaceuticals (to a “limited extent”)
  • Feed additives (to a “limited extent”) 

Arsenic is dangerous to your health and has been confirmed as a contributing factor for cancer. According to WHO, people with arsenic poisoning may experience vomiting, abdominal pain, muscle cramps, numb extremities and diarrhea. 

If the case is especially severe, arsenic poisoning can be deadly.

Inorganic arsenic is much more dangerous and toxic than organic arsenic. The organic form can be occasionally found in seafood. 


According to OSHA, there are around 62,000 U.S. workers that are at risk of beryllium exposure in the workplace. Work environments such as shipyards, construction sites, power plants, dental labs, foundries and mines are all places where beryllium exposure is possible. 

Workers who participate in the fabricating, machining or grinding of beryllium metal and alloys should all be especially concerned about inhaling airborne beryllium. 

OSHA requires workplaces in all industries to limit employee beryllium exposure to 0.2 micrograms of beryllium per cubic meter of air (μg/m3), as an 8-hour time-weighted average, and 2.0 μg/m3 as determined over a sampling period of 15 minutes. 

This means that over an 8-hour workday, each cubic meter of air cannot contain more than .2 micrograms of beryllium. For shorter periods of exposure the limit is higher but the sampled time period must be no more than 15 minutes. 

People exposed to Beryllium are susceptible to multiple diseases as well as cancer. The main health concerns are:

  • Beryllium Sensitization: the immune system’s response to beryllium 
  • Chronic Beryllium Disease: symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing, fatigue, weight loss, fever and night sweats
  • Lung Cancer: Beryllium has been confirmed as the cause for human cancer 
  • Acute Beryllium Disease: A kind of chemical pneumonia that quickly makes you very sick and can be fatal  


Many workers are susceptible to cadmium exposure but OSHA warns that manufacturing and construction workers are most likely to come into contact with high cadmium levels. 

Exposure can occur during the smelting and refining of metals, battery manufacturing, plastic making and solar panel construction. Cadmium exposures have also happened during welding, painting and metal machining. 

Employees of electronic or plastic recycling facilities and landfills should all be aware of the dangers of cadmium exposure. 

Precautions such as personal protective equipment use, respiratory protection and ventilation can all help protect workers from cadmium. 

Cadmium is very toxic and some welders have died following high exposures. If you are exposed to high levels quickly, you can become sick with flu-like symptoms and experience lung damage. 

For people who are exposed to small amounts over longer periods of time, it can lead to kidney, bone and lung disease. 

Metals Testing and Workplace Safety 

Cadmium, Arsenic and Beryllium are not the only metals that pose dangers to workers. OSHA also regulates hexavalent chromium, lead and mercury to protect workers across the U.S.

EHS specializes in helping businesses identify hazardous or dangerous materials. Our labs are best known for lead testing services but you can also request tests for other metals.

You can choose from multi-metal testing packages that utilize Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy (AAS) and Inductively-Coupled Plasma spectroscopy (ICP) such as:

  • RCRA-8 Totals
  • EPA 13 Priority Metals
  • Toxic Metal Profiles
  • Welding Fumes Profiles
  • Custom Analytical Profiles

In addition, you can choose TCLP testing to simulate landfill scenarios. 

Contact the EHS customer service team to get testing forms, supplies and shipping information.