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Case Study

Carcinogens in the Electroplating Industry

The Client

The Health and Safety Executive and the Surface Engineering Association.

The Problem

In the electroplating industry, hexavalent chromium and nickel compounds are widely used as deposition plating metals.  Both are classified as skin and respiratory sensitising agents and carcinogens; it is therefore important that exposure be reduced to as low as reasonably practicable. An estimated 3000 workers are potentially exposed to nickel and/or hexavalent chromium in the electroplating industry, through inhalation of dusts, fumes and mists; dermal absorption; or by ingestion as a result of hand to mouth contamination. Consequently, efforts to reduce worker exposure rely on good working practices, appropriate engineering controls and suitable personal protective equipment, used correctly.

Two hands, palms up, showing skin contamination. Male forearm showing similar contamination.

What We Did

Our study looked at whether repeat biological monitoring could drive sustainable improvements in exposure control by raising individual worker risk awareness and improving worker understanding of exposure pathways.

Workers at forty-nine electroplating companies took part by providing a post shift urine sample for three consecutive days, at the start of the project, and at 6 and 12 month intervals, to assess levels of exposure to chromium and nickel. Following the results of the initial sampling, direct feedback and targeted advice was provided.

Routes of exposure were also investigated by conducting hand wash sampling, surface wipes and air sampling.


Many companies were found to be controlling exposures within the current guidelines, although there were still areas for improvement.  In fifteen companies, more than half the workers had elevated urinary nickel levels (the same was true for urinary chromium levels in thirteen companies). After feedback and guidance, worker exposures were significantly reduced in these companies in the follow-up sampling rounds. Repeat biological monitoring saw reductions in the range of 30 - 40% for nickel and 20 - 30% for chromium.

The graph below shows the reduction in urinary chromium levels for a maintenance worker as a result of advice given after the initial sampling, with follow-up values about one quarter of the initial values.

Graph showing urinary chromium measured on initial visit and follow ups

It was also determined that exposure to chromium and nickel in the electroplating industry occurs via a combination of inhalation, dermal absorption and ingestion routes.

The study demonstrated that biological monitoring is a very effective tool for exposure assessment and that repeat testing can effectively reduce levels of exposure to nickel and chromium due to improved exposure control and personal risk awareness.

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