Toxins were recycled in recycling firm air

MATRIX RECYCLED This UK e-waste recycling giant recirculated mercury through the workplace via a defective ventilation system, resulting in gross exposures to the workforce.

MATRIX RECYCLED This UK e-waste recycling giant recirculated mercury through the workplace via a defective ventilation system, resulting in gross exposures to the workforce.

One of the UK’s largest recycling firms and its director have been fined a total of £145,000 for “shocking” safety breaches that exposed workers to mercury fumes.

Twenty employees of Electrical Waste Recycling Group Ltd (EWR), formerly known as Matrix Direct Recycling Ltd, had levels of mercury in their system above UK guidance levels at the site in Huddersfield, and five of them showed extremely high levels following the exposure in the 10 months between October 2007 and August 2008.

Several workers had reported ill health as a result, including a pregnant worker who was concerned her unborn baby was at risk.

The firm recycles electrical equipment including fluorescent light tubes containing mercury and TV sets and monitors containing lead.

Bradford Crown Court heard that ventilation problems at the plant meant employees were being exposed to potentially harmful emissions from both substances. Mercury vapour was released when the lighting tubes were crushed. Because carbon filters were not fitted on the purpose-designed machine, the contaminated air was itself recycled and pumped back into the premises. One of the ducts pumped contaminated air directly into the office area.

The firm is involved in litigation with the American suppliers of the processing equipment over the missing carbon filters which would have stopped any mercury emissions, the court was told.

On 5 February 2010, EWR was fined £140,000 and ordered to pay £35,127 costs after pleading guilty to criminal safety breaches, including three separate breaches of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002, and one breach of the Control of Lead at Work Regulations 2002. 

Company director Craig Thompson, 38, was also fined £5,000 after pleading guilty to a criminal breach of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002. The judge decided not to disqualify Thompson from being a director. The court was told he had financial difficulties, including debts of £80,000.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the UK government’s workplace safety enforcement agency, issued the company five Improvement Notices and one Prohibition Notice – putting an immediate stop to work –  in relation to the incident. Although the company’s own daily tests identified high levels of mercury at the premises, the closure of an oven used to dispose of the chemical failed to solve the problem and by August 2008 HSE had issued the prohibition and improvement notices against the company.

Prior to the prohibition notice, HSE staff had tested the urine of 35 employees at the premises and found 20 had higher than recommended levels of mercury.

Barrister Robert Smith QC, for the companies, said since the prohibition notice was served the firm had spent £350,000 installing an effective emission filter system and a further £281,000-a-year was being spent on additional managers and supervisors. He told the court tests on staff conducted in January 2010 showed all were under the recommended levels.

After the hearing HSE inspector Jeanne Morton said: “This is a shocking case involving a large number of employees, many of them young and vulnerable, who were suddenly faced with the worrying possibility of damage to their long-term health. The risks associated with handling toxic substances like mercury have been known for generations, so it is all the more unacceptable that something like this has happened. The company failed to see the risks created by their recycling work and failed to develop effective plans for safe working. They also did nothing to check their workers’ health after exposure.

“Workers have a right to expect a reasonable level of protection in the workplace, and employers have a legal duty to provide it.”

Max Folkett, site inspector for the Environment Agency, added: “We have worked closely with HSE and other organisations during the investigation which led to this prosecution. Electrical Waste Recycling Group Limited requires an environmental permit from us for the recovery and processing of hazardous waste and we routinely inspect the site to check the company is complying with the permit. We suspended the permit following this incident in August 2008, removing the risk of mercury escaping from the site, because of our concerns the operation posed a serious risk of pollution from mercury.”

Toxic metals use, far from declining, appears to be staging a comeback. Lead use has increased dramatically in recent years. And increased production of electronic equipment worldwide is set to see the use of lead soar over the next decade.

The long term downward trend in mercury production stalled in 2006 and 2007. Latest figures, published in the 2009 edition of the authoritative World Mineral Production, show 1.4 million kilograms were produced in each of these years, a figure the report suggests is an underestimate.

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