If you work in or run a business that’s heavy on industrial processes, you’ll likely be aware of carcinogens and the effects they can have on workers’ health.

One of those carcinogens is hexavalent chromium – commonly known as hex chrome.

In this post, we’ll cover everything you need to know about hex chrome to help keep your people safe, and your business operating in line with the government’s safety guidelines, Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH).

What is hex chrome?

Chromium is a transition metal that occurs naturally in foods, minerals and sometimes drinking water depending on the source. It isn’t always hazardous to human health but can be depending on the specific form.

Welding torch

While the substances above typically contain trace amounts of Chromium III, which is non-toxic unless ingested in massive amounts, hexavalent chromium refers to the highly toxic Chromium IV, which is present a number of different products and processes, including:

  • Producing, welding and cutting stainless steel and other chromium alloys
  • paint and pottery pigments
  • chemical manufacturing catalysts
  • Dyes
  • Leather tanning agents
  • Processing of nickel and its compounds
  • Plus anodising and electroplating

In terms of how people are actually exposed to hex chrome, there are three main ways:

  • Breathing in fumes, mist or dust laced with it
  • Coming into direct skin contact with a chromium-6 laced solid or liquid substance
  • Swallowing it – most likely from eating with residual chromium dust unwittingly on the fingers

All of which brings us to discuss what you need to know about hexavalent chromium health effects.

Health concerns with hexavalent chromium exposure

How harmful hex chrome is depends on a few different factors. Generally speaking, the more soluble the form is, the more will be released into your system and the more toxic it will be.

A single exposure to hexavalent chromium can cause:

  • Nasal and upper respiratory swelling and irritation
  • Skin irritation, possibly leading to burns and ulcers in some cases depending on the nature of the exposure
  • Eye damage if exposed via splashes of a liquid containing hex chrome

However, much more serious problems can occur after multiple exposures, including:

  • Nose tissue damage, including ulcers and holes in or destruction of the septum
  • Lung swelling
  • Skin and respiratory tract-based allergic reactions
  • Kidney damage
  • Lung cancer
  • And possibly even effects on both male fertility and how unborn babies develop in the womb if a pregnant mother-to-be suffers multiple hex chrome exposures

Avoiding workplace hex chrome exposure

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), there are a number of things workers and businesses alike can to do mitigate the risks of hexavalent chromium exposure.

Workers should:

  • Use provided extraction equipment and other control measures correctly and safely
  • Use provided protective clothing and equipment
  • Make use of provided washing facilities – and request management make changes if they aren’t adequate
  • Report to their employer any notable defects in things such as extraction equipment, enclosures or other relevant safety control measures
  • Avoid eating or drinking in work areas where chromium maybe a going concern
  • Wear a respirator, making sure it fits properly, works well, has a filter that’s regularly changed, and is stored in a cool dry place (ideally a locker).

Businesses should:

Nurse taking blood pressure

  • Assess the risks to workers’ health and take precautions for their protection;
  • Prevent workers being exposed to chromium wherever possible – and where not, provide adequate control measures
  • Make sure all controls for dangerous dusts and fumes are kept in efficient working order
  • Where respirators are tight-fitting, make sure staff are fit-tested
  • In the event of chromium exposure, implement a monitoring program to gauge exposure levels and inform workers of the results
  • Arrange any necessary health checks
  • Offer extensive training to all employees who could realistically be exposed to chromium in the workplace for any reason

Businesses should also aim to reduce staff exposure to airborne chromium and its compounds as much as reasonably possible, while always aiming to keep chromium levels below the recommended workplace exposure limits (WELs). For hexavalent chromium, those limits are 0.05 milligrams per cubic metre of air averaged over an 8-hour period. Other chromium compounds they are 0.5 milligrams over the same metrics.

Is your company equipped to deal with hex chrome fumes?

At VODEX, we’re most concerned with helping you to avoid breathing in dangerous fumes and dusts. And the facts about hex chrome fumes are that they are very dangerous indeed!

Luckily, we offer a host of COSHH-compliant extraction solutions for the metalworking and mechanical engineering industry to help you keep your business within regulations, and your workers safe from hex chrome related illnesses.

Not sure which solution is right for you? Get in touch so we can answer your questions, get to know your business, and talk you through your options.

Further reading

All About Asthma

HSE Extends Clampdown on Metalworking Safety Measures

Metal Fume Fever: What it is & How to Prevent it

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