Protecting Shipyard Employees from Hexavalent Chromium

Andrew Berry04/01/2024

Shipyards across the United States, used for both shipbuilding and repair, created $28.1 billion of labor income and $42.4 billion in GDP in 2019.1 To protect the nearly 400,000 employees who work in shipyards, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) employs safeguards to protect against the hazards that accompany work on vessels that often weigh more than 150,000 tons. A wide range of hazards exist in shipyards, from fire and explosion hazards to excessive noise exposure. In both shipbuilding and repair, hexavalent chromium exposure is one of the most common hazards employees face. Hexavalent chromium is found in most common metals and industrial paints, leading to high exposures in hot metal work and any work associated with paint, including initial application and stripping.

A known carcinogen associated with lung cancer, long-term exposure to hexavalent chromium can also cause adverse health effects from skin contact and inhalation.2 OSHA has tight controls around how long employees can be in environments with high concentrations of hexavalent chromium in the air. In most circumstances, employees must wear personal protective equipment (PPE), including respirators, when working with material that contains hexavalent chromium and should undergo medical surveillance exams to ensure that there have been no changes in health that would indicate dangerous exposure to the metal. With a strong occupational health partner, shipyard employers can protect their employees from hexavalent chromium exposure while also maintaining compliance with OSHA standards.

What is chromium?

Chromium, the seventh most abundant element on earth, is a versatile trace element. There are two forms of chromium, trivalent and hexavalent.3 Trivalent chromium is used in supplements and some foods – it has demonstrated uses in keeping blood sugar levels normal and may help with insulin use. Hexavalent chromium, on the other hand, is a toxin. 

As a metal, chromium is hardy, somewhat reflective, and resistant to corrosion. These properties make it popular in electroplating, leather tanning, stainless steel production, textile manufacturing, and wood preservation.4 In shipyards, hexavalent chromium is found in stainless steel and paint – the anti-corrosive properties of chromium help paint withstand the constant beating of waves and the rust associated with salt water.

Health effects of chromium

Hexavalent chromium poses the highest risk to employee safety through touch and respiration. Employees who often handle liquids or solids containing hexavalent chromium can develop an allergic reaction to the mineral that causes swelling and a red, itchy rash that becomes crusty and thickened over time.2 Respiration of chromium particles, which occurs when employees inhale airborne hexavalent chromium as a dust, fume, or mist is more common and can lead to more severe health effects. Prolonged exposure to hexavalent chromium particles may cause the following:

  • Irritation or damage to the nose, throat, lungs, and eyes
  • Lung cancer
  • Allergic reactions to airborne hexavalent chromium, which can lead to occupational asthma2

According to OSHA, “all hexavalent chromium compounds are considered carcinogenic to workers. The risk of developing lung, nasal, and sinus cancer increases with the amount of hexavalent chromium inhaled and the length of time the worker is exposed.” Employees face the highest risk of damage to their respiratory tract.

Exposure to hexavalent chromium

Shipyard employees face higher risks of hexavalent chromium exposure because many core functions of shipyard work involve solvents, metals, and other powders that contain chromium. If paint or dyes are made on premises, employees may inhale fumes containing hexavalent chromate pigments and powders, chromic acid, chromium catalysts, and coatings. Electroplating, in which electric currents are used to plate one metal onto another, is a common hexavalent exposure point.5 Welding, also known as “hot work,” with stainless steel, high chrome alloys, and chrome-coated metal can release hexavalent chromium particles into the air.6 As previously mentioned, employees who apply and remove chromate-containing paints and other surface coatings may encounter dust, fumes, or mists containing hexavalent chromium.

Protecting employees

Shipyard exposures to hexavalent chromium are governed by OSHA standard 1915.1026 (Z) Chromium (VI) as part of the Occupational Safety and Health Standards for Shipyard Employment.7 The standard applies to all employers who may spend time in an environment with a concentration of airborne hexavalent chromium of 2.5 micrograms per cubic meter of air (2.5 µgm/m3) calculated as an 8-hour time-weighted average. Beyond applications for shift rotations, work area and personal hygiene, and cloth PPE, the standard states that employers are responsible for providing respirators and medical surveillance services to employees. With the help of a strong occupational health care partner, employers can stay compliant with the OSHA standard while also providing their employees with peace of mind that they are protected.

Medical surveillance exams

A medical surveillance exam under the chromium standard must be completed within 30 days of an employee’s start date in the work assignment that falls under OSHA Standard 1915.1026 (Z) Chromium (VI). Periodic exams are performed annually during the assignment, and an exit exam is performed at the conclusion of their assignment.7 Exams are also required if an employee shows signs or symptoms of the adverse health effects associated with chromium exposure or within 30 days after exposure during an emergency which results in an uncontrolled release of hexavalent chromium. The OSHA standard requires that the physical include a review of the employee’s medical and work history, with a special emphasis on signs or symptoms related to the adverse health effects associated with chromium.

An established occupational health provider, like Concentra®, will use a basic physical exam to establish a baseline for this type of surveillance. The evaluation should be based on the required physical demands of the job assignment, personal protective equipment to be worn, the individual employee’s previous exposure, and current level of exposure. Recommended testing can include:8

  • Blood and urine samples to check for signs of exposure
  • Spirometry (lung function)
  • Chest X-ray
  • Electrocardiogram

A hexavalent chromium surveillance exam will include extra testing focused on the respiratory tract and a detailed history of any respiratory system dysfunction or asthma.

Respirator exams

For respirator protection, employers are governed by OSHA Standard 1910.134 Subpart I for Personal Protective Equipment. This standard is the umbrella standard for all respirator wear – the shipyard standard abides by its regulations. To “pass” a respirator exam, employees must complete a respirator medical evaluation questionnaire to determine if they have any symptoms or conditions that could undermine the effectiveness of a respirator.

After being deemed capable of using a respirator, the employee can undergo a respirator fit test to determine if a tight-fitting respirator can be worn without any leaks. Employees must complete the fit test using a respirator that’s the same make, model, and size as one they will wear on the job while also wearing any other required equipment (e.g., glasses).9 A strong occupational health partner should provide options for testing that include both qualitative, relying on the user’s senses to detect leaks, and quantitative, which uses machinery to detect leaks. The OSHA standard does not specify a preferred testing method.

Shipyard safety

As the nation’s largest occupational health provider, Concentra is well-versed in health and safety standards across industries. Whether in one of our 540+ medical centers or through our episodic health events, we’ll work with you to protect your employees and keep up with OSHA standards. To see how we can help you reach your health care goals, contact a Concentra representative today.


  1. The Economic Importance of the U.S. Private Shipbuilding and Repairing Industry,” Maritime Administration (MARAD), March 30, 2021.
  2. Health Effects of Hexavalent Chromium,” OSHA, July 2007.
  3. Chromium - Uses, Side Effects, and More,” WebMD, n.d.
  4. Hexavalent Chromium,” OSHA, n.d.
  5. 6 Reasons Why Shipyards Should Consider Selective Plating,” by Derek Vanek. SIFCO ASC, n.d.
  6. Hexavalent Chromium,” The University of Iowa, n.d.
  7. Occupational Safety and Health Standards for Shipyard Employment,” OSHA, May 14, 2019.
  8. Medical Surveillance,” Concentra, n.d.
  9. Respirator Fit Tests,” Concentra, n.d.