Arsenic

Arsenic compounds, which are designated hazardous substances, are used in agriculture (as an additive to feed), and insecticides, herbicides, larvicides, and pesticides; in pigment production; in the manufacture of glass and enamels, textile printing, tanning, taxidermy, and anti-fouling paints; to control sludge formation in lubricating oils; as an alloying agent to harden lead base bearing materials; with copper to improve its toughness and corrosion resistance; and in a number of laboratory procedures. Arsenic compounds are also used to preserve wood (eg in the treatment of telecommunications poles).

Arsine is a highly poisonous and flammable gas.

Advice for Reps

The key to making the workplace safe for all union members is a strong, active and well-informed OHS rep, and an active committee. Reps should be involved in the identification of hazardous substances in the workplace, assess the risks associated with these substances, and then be involved with the employer to ensure that the risks are eliminated, or if this is not possible, reduced. 

Legal Standards

The SafeWork Australia (SWA) Hazardous Substances Information System (HSIS) Consolidated List of Substances includes arsenic, arsenic acid and its salts, arsenic compounds and arsine and these substances are therefore regulated under Part 4 of the consolidated Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Regulations (2007). Employers must, by law, implement these regulations, which means they must first try to eliminate the hazard or the risks associated with the hazard. If this is not practicable, then the employer must reduce the risk, according to the preferred order of hazard control - that is by beginning at the source.

Where, after taking all practicable measures to control the risk at the source, there is still a risk that workers may be exposed to arsenic, the employer must provide adequate information, training and where necessary, personal protective equipment.

The training employers must provide should include the following: personal hygiene and sanitation; the use of personal protective equipment; and the early recognition of symptoms of absorption, irritation to the skin, and possible allergic reactions.

Where called for (based on the degree of exposure, the concentration of arsenic, and the national exposure standard), workers should be provided with respirators. Protective clothing, gloves, goggles, and a hood for the head and neck should be provided. Clean work clothes should be supplied daily, and workers should shower prior to changing into street clothes.

More Information on the Hazardous Substances Regulations.

Note: The national chemical regulator, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) has reviewed the uses of copper chrome arsenate (CCA) timber treatments that it cannot be confident are safe. From 1 July 2012, CCA products became restricted chemical products. This means, CCA can only be supplied to, and used by, suitably trained persons authorised under state/territory law from that date.
See this page on the APVMA website for more information on CCA treated timber and the reviews it has undertaken.

The SWA Exposure Standard

SWA has set the exposure standard (time weighted average) for arsenic and soluble compounds at 0.05 mg/m3 (milligrams per cubic meter of air), and at 0.05 ppm (parts per million) and 0.16 mg/m3 for arsine gas. If you suspect that you or any of your members may be exposed to arsenic, ensure that the employer has arranged for professional monitoring of the levels in the workplace. Ensure that the consultants employed are on the VTHC list of consultants. 

Health Effects

Health problems from arsenic exposure occur as a result of inhalation (breathing), absorption (through the skin) or ingestion (swallowing) of arsenic dust and fumes. The common hazards of occupational exposure to arsenic compounds are:

  • Irritation of the skin, eyes, mouth, throat and lungs. They can cause skin rashes or dermatitis. The moist mucous membranes of the body are most sensitive to the irritant action. In addition, the skin, eyelids, angles of the ears, nose, mouth, and respiratory membranes are also susceptible to the irritant effects.
  • Chronic poisoning, including cancer of the skin and lungs.
  • Acute poisoning that may result in death. Acute poisoning by arsenic compounds other than arsine rarely occurs in industry but can occur as a result of inhalation and skin absorption, as well as ingestion.

Cases of severe arsenic poisoning due to inhalation are rare. When it does occur, respiratory tract symptoms - cough, chest pain, difficult breathing, giddiness, headache, and a general weakness of the body - occur. These symptoms may be followed by gastrointestinal or stomach pains.

Chronic arsenic poisoning due to ingestion is also rare. Symptoms are weight loss, nausea, and diarrhoea alternating with constipation, pigmentation, and eruption of the skin, loss of hair, and peripheral neuritis. Horizontal white lines on the fingernails and toenails are commonly seen in arsenic poisoning.

Inhalation of arsenic compounds is the most common cause of arsenic poisoning in the industrial work environment. This condition is divided into three phases:

  1. The worker complains of weakness, loss of appetite, nausea, occasional vomiting, and some diarrhoea.
  2. The worker complains of an inflammation of the eyelids and mucous membranes of the nose and respiratory passages. Hoarseness and a cough may also occur. In addition, skin lesions are common.
  3. The worker complains of pains in the hands and feet. In more severe cases, paralysis may occur.

In addition, it has been proven that arsenic exposure can cause lung cancer. It is also believed that arsenic poisoning may cause liver damage.

Medical Treatment

In employment physical examinations, attention should be given to allergic and chronic skin lesions, skin rashes, eye diseases, weight, baseline blood and red blood cell count, and urinary arsenic determinations. During periodic physical examinations, the worker's general health, weight, and skin condition should be checked. If the employer does not provide for periodic physical examinations, these should be negotiated into the collective bargaining agreement.

Union members should make sure that the examining doctor knows of their work with or around arsenic and performs the above tests. The examining doctor should also give exposed workers x-rays, lung function tests, and analyse the urine, hair, or nails for arsenic.

See also:

  • Guide to Arsenic and its compounds  While this 32 page guide has not been updated to reflect the requirements of the harmonised Work Health Safety Laws, Safe Work says it continues to be available as a source of practical guidance, and will contribute to industry state of knowledge, to assist those who must comply with the harmonised WHS laws.
  • Overview of the Hazardous Substances sections of the 2004 Regulations
  • From the US Environmental Working Group: the Arsenic topic page.  In 2004 EWG's research on the risk of kids' exposure to arsenic-based wood preservatives convinced the US EPA to ban its use in treated wood. The EWG believes, however, that arsenic-laced wood remains in 70 million backyards across the country.

Thanks to the CWA - Communication Workers of America (CWA) for their Fact sheet "Arsenic at the Workplace"

Last updated February 2015

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