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Occupational Exposures at Electronic Scrap Recycling Facilities

Posted on by Diana Ceballos, PhD,CIH,MS; Elena Page, MD,MPH
Employee manually dismantling cathode ray tubes from televisions. Photo by NIOSH.

Go Green! Recycle! We have all heard the call to be more environmentally conscious. However, not everyone is aware of the many health and safety hazards facing employees who handle the recycling of electronics. Many recycled electronics can contain hazardous materials such as lead, cadmium and other toxic metals. In 2011, the U.S. e-scrap recycling industry contributed approximately $20.6 billion to the U.S. economy, compared with less than $1 billion in 2002 [ISRI 2014]. The ‘e-scrap’ recycling industry is also called ‘e-waste’ or ‘e-cycle.’ This industry sector generated about 45,000 direct jobs in 2011, up from 6,000 employees in 2002, and recycled more than 4.4 million metric tons of materials in 2010 [ISRI 2014]. To better document the hazards, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has completed exposure evaluations at several electronics recycling facilities and conducted a survey of electronics recycling facilities across the United States.

Recent NIOSH Health Hazard Evaluations

Through the NIOSH Health Hazard Evaluation (HHE) Program we have measured employee exposures to lead, cadmium, chromium, and noisein e-scrap recycling facilities. We found that employees in facilities that process cathode ray tube (CRT) glass, including employees in areas away from where the CRT glass is processed, can be overexposed to lead and cadmium. At some facilities, we have found lead, cadmium, and other toxic metals on surfaces outside of production areas, ineffective engineering controls, and poor employee work practices such as dry sweeping (causes dust laden with toxic metals to be swept back into the air). NIOSH has also found conditions that can lead to “take-home” exposures; for example, in some e-scrap recycling facilities the employees did not have access to showers or work uniforms. As a result, employees tracked contamination through the facility and to their personal vehicles, and potentially to their homes. More information and prevention recommendations can be found in the HHE reports listed below.

Given that results from hazard evaluations at individual sites might not be representative of an industry as a whole, we conducted a telephone survey of 47 facilities in the United States to provide a broader picture. Through the survey, we identified several types of occupational health hazards in the e-scrap recycling industry. We learned that responding facilities 1) had between 10 and 80 employees, 2) recycled a wide array of electronics, and 3) performed manual recycling processes. Some facilities had practices indicative of poor control of dust generated during recycling. The survey showed that e-scrap recycling has the potential for a wide variety of occupational exposures and that educating the industry about health and safety practices was needed to help protect employee health. More information can be found in the survey report.

Recycled phones before being shredded. Photo by NIOSH.
Recycled phones before being shredded. Photo by NIOSH.

NIOSH shared information from the HHEs and survey with the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries, Incorporated (ISRI), R2 Solutions (now called Sustainable Electronics Recycling International [SERI]), and the Basel Action Network (BAN). These organizations administer the Recycling Industry Operating Standard™ (RIOS™), the Responsible Recycling Standard for Electronics Recyclers (R2,) and the e-Stewards® Standard for Responsible Recycling and Reuse of Electronic Equipment (e-Stewards®). These are voluntary certification standards for electronic recyclers. Continued efforts are needed to ensure that occupational health and safety considerations are an important component of voluntary certification programs.

Participate in a New NIOSH Study

Starting Fall 2014, NIOSH will begin a study to evaluate occupational exposures to metals and flame retardants in e-scrap recycling facilities and to recommend controls to reduce employee exposures. The HHE Program is looking for five facilities that would like to participate. We plan to observe work processes and practices, and evaluate exposure controls and employee health. During the visits, a team of industrial hygienists and medical officers will assess occupational exposures to workers at each facility, including metals (such as lead, cadmium, and indium) and flame retardants (such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers and newer alternatives). We will also evaluate engineering controls such as local exhaust ventilation, and the use of work practices and personal protective equipment at these workplaces. There is no cost to the facility to participate. The findings and recommendations from these evaluations will be shared with employer and employee representatives at each facility and will be posted on the NIOSH HHE Program website.

Seeking Feedback

NIOSH is interested in learning more about employee exposures to other harmful materials, physical hazards, or other stressors at e-scrap recycling facilities. Let us know what e-scrap health and safety hazards you think have not been well studied. We also want to learn about measures that have been effective in preventing or minimizing these workplace hazards.

Diana Ceballos, PhD, CIH, MS; Elena Page, MD, MPH

Dr. Ceballos is an Industrial Hygienist in the NIOSH Hazard Evaluations and Technical Assistance Branch in the Division of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluations and Field Studies.

Dr. Page is a medical officer in the NIOSH Hazard Evaluations and Technical Assistance Branch in the Division of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluations and Field Studies.

This work was supported in part by funding from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (Interagency Agreement No: DW-75-92357701–0; CDC/NIOSH IAA No: 12-NS12-11)

Note:  The original statistics for the value to the economy, number of direct jobs, and tons of material that were posted here originally were erroneous. The statistics now posted are accurate. The correction was made on November 18, 2014.

Helpful Resources

Posted on by Diana Ceballos, PhD,CIH,MS; Elena Page, MD,MPH

34 comments on “Occupational Exposures at Electronic Scrap Recycling Facilities”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    In my country it is a false occupation without any prevencion.That deserves a global health legislation that contains this specific case for developing countries, I follow your site thanks

    EnvirOSH Services has conducted several air and noise monitoring surveys at E-scrap recycling facilities. We have found lead and noise which you mentioned above; and we found mercury to be of concern. There are lamps (thin light bulbs) which contain mercury inside some “All-in-One” printers, scanners, PC flat panel displays, etc. Some of the larger LCD flat panel TVs contain over 20 mercury containing lamps.

    Thank you for your comment. We are glad you mention mercury as it is certainly a concern for e-scrap recyclers. In the facilities that we have evaluated we have not found mercury exposures. However, we will continue to look for exposure to mercury to make sure we provide valuable recommendations for control.

    thanks for showing me this. I want to say, this blogpost has a useful information and good article, i really enjoy to read, and I’ve seen in a long time. good job

    You have written a very informative article with great quality content and well laid out points. I agree with you on many of your views and you’ve got me thinking.

    We also involve in the scrap work of electronics and i’m glad to look at this article as i learned harmful material which are hazardous. I’m a surveyor researching on bad effects of toxics on nature. Thank you CDC.

    I always knew that there were safety risks at this type of facility, but I never even thought of some of the scenarios that you mentioned in the article. There are a lot of safety precautions that you need to take to make sure that your employees are safe. Personal safety equipment is exactly the way to do that I think. I’m thinking about opening a manufacturing plant, and we’ll definitely need some personal safety equipment to make sure that our employees are adequately protected.

    We are very happy to hear that you’re already thinking about how to keep your workers safe. NIOSH recommends first trying to remove or control potential hazards from a workplace, through substitutions of less hazardous materials or engineering controls. Personal protective equipment, which an important element to consider in any safety planning, is the last line of defense in protecting workers.

    This is truly unique and excellent information. I sense you think a lot like me, or vice versa. Thank you for sharing this great article.
    [Name removed] is the trusted partner for safe recycling of electronics, including destrction of your discarded hard drives.

    I wasn’t aware of the number of health risks that need to be managed in e-scrap recycling facilities before reading your report. Too bad you can’t treat them equally but should adjust your health risk reduction program according to the type of WEEE and technology that is used. Seems like a lot of planning and work to me.

    P.S. Noticed that the link to your Evaluation of Exposure to Metals at an Electronic Scrap Recycling Facility Adobe PDF file in “Helpful Resources” is borken. JFYI

    Sam from Rubbish Please

    I wasn’t aware of the number of health risks that need to be managed in e-scrap recycling facilities before reading your report. Too bad you can’t treat them equally but should adjust your health risk reduction program according to the type of WEEE and technology that is used.


    I had no idea that there were so many different things that could be recycled. I mean, I know paper, and aluminum cans, but I had no idea about a lot of this stuff! I never would have guessed that you could recycle cell phones. That is good information to have. I have a bunch of old cell phones sitting around my house, and I would love to recycle them.

    Very interesting article, Diana; I wasn’t aware that there were occupational hazards for people who work in electronic recycling services.. We definitely shouldn’t take them for granted. I’ve been thinking about taking our old computer to a recycling center, and properly dispose of it. I haven’t chosen a facility yet, but I’ll have to thank the employees for the work they’ve done.

    In my country it is a false occupation without any prevencion.That deserves a global health legislation that contains this specific case for developing countries.

    This a good and useful blog. because there have a lot of information. and It’s true that Recycled phones before being shredded. Thanks for share this.

    This article gives us best and good information regarding electronic scrap recycling , I work on the project which is based on electronic recycling services. This article also help me in my project.Thank you for this post.

    45,000 direct jobs and recycled more than 4.4 million metric tons of materials! Good job! It is true that in this industry there are a lot hazardous materials. These people should be protected. Your article made me think for all these people working in this area. Thank you!

    There are places where the recycling process is being handled by robots instead of people because of the dangers involved in separating and breaking down the electronic components. This would be a safer way of doing things in my opinion. I know there is an argument of providing jobs to the general public, but it is not worth putting at risk the health of an otherwise healthy workforce.


    I enjoyed your article, i worked for a company that did not practice safe employee standards with e-waste and this article gave me a huge reminder of how unhealthy that job was. A majority of these problems could be decreased if reuse was a higher priority. For example the EPA’s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act was put in place to prevent harm and better the environment and employees versus dismantling. I am putting in an application to a company because they actually use the act as business model. Maybe more companies will adopt this model of awareness.

    Chinese aren’t aware of the number of health risks that need to be managed in e-scrap recycling facilities. Such a huge problem here with little or no information.

    Very interesting article. I am the owner of a company called 9name removed) in Europe. We are also obliged to follow health hazard guidelines. Which i am happy for, because i am and feel very responsible for the people that work for me. We have had various checks of the fire department, Checking for fire hazards but also health risks. One very good tip i got from them was. If you have to store old batteries that have to be recycled. Put them in a hard plastic container that can be closed. the same as used on sailing boats the prevent your valuables getting wet, and put a layer of sand on the bottom. then put a layer of batteries and then another layer of sand. you continue to do this until it is full. This prevents a fire, but also when opened it doesn’t or a lot less toxins being released from the container.

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