What are the dangers of electroplating?

Written by russell huebsch
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What are the dangers of electroplating?
People often electroplate jewellery with gold. (Image by Flickr.com, courtesy of anthony kelly)

People have used electroplating for thousands of years. Artefacts from Peru show ancient societies coated ceremonial masks with gold. The electroplating process uses some extremely lethal chemicals that can result in death. While electroplating poses little risk when performed correctly, carelessness often causes the most amount of danger. Preventing electroplating dangers requires increasing awareness of the toxic materials used in the process.

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Identification

Electroplating applies a coating of material, usually a metal, to the surface of an object to give it new properties, such as a sleeker surface or more pleasing appearance, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The most common method of electroplating uses a process known as electrodeposition, which transfers metallic ions from one object to another, the way a battery transfers electricity, according to University of Washington-Seattle professor Walther Schwarzacher.

Types

Hazards from electroplating come when the corrosive and toxic chemicals come in contact with the body, according to the "Electroplating Engineering Handbook." Quite often, the dangerous properties of some electroplating chemicals are compounded by their mishandling, such as not wearing goggles when a chemical accidentally splashes into the eye.

Effects

While the actual health effects of electroplating depend on the specific chemical, most of the health hazards are very serious. Acids are most often used for electroplating, and most of them result in lesions and burns when they touch the skin, according to the handbook. The solvents used to clean objects before plating can result in a light-headed feeling, headaches and even death. Workplace electroplating results in 20 per cent to 25 per cent of industry-related injuries, such as bruising and strain from lifting heavy chemical tanks.

Considerations

Most of the reported dangers of electroplating focus on the chemical hazards, but fires in an electroplating shop can cause much more damage, even if they are rarer, the handbook says. Electroplating often uses oxidising agents, such as chromic acid, which produce violent explosions when accidentally combined with cyanide, also commonly used for electroplating. These explosions can then spread fire to the plastic vent systems that surround the typical chemical holding tank.

Prevention/Solution

Because most electroplating dangers and hazards are the result of employees not properly handling materials, education and safety incentives are the best way to prevent serious health consequences, the handbook says. Employees should know what to do and where to go in case they come in contact with a chemical. Supervisors should inform the building's safety officials about what chemicals exist in the electroplating facility and their effects.

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