Introduction to radiation in the workplace
Every day in the UK, a wide range of radiation types are used in industrial, medical, research and communications applications.
Some of these applications cause harmful exposure risks that must be effectively controlled. This explains how those controls can be put in place.
The main types of radiation
Radiation is generally classed as either ‘ionising’ or ‘non-ionising’.
Ionising radiation generally has more energy than non-ionising radiation.
- gamma rays
- particulate radiation (alpha, beta and neutron radiation) produced from X-ray sets or radioactive substances
They are typically used in:
- medical exposures
- industrial radiography equipment
- gauges used in industry for process control
But, they may also be produced from naturally occurring radioactive substances, including radon gas.
- radiofrequency and microwaves, for example from plastic welding and some communications transmitters
- infra-red, for example from very hot, glowing sources in glass and metal production
- ultraviolet (UV) rays, for example from welding or the sun
- visible radiation from high-intensity light sources, for example lasers
Ionising radiation can cause dermatitis, burns, cell damage, cataracts, changes to blood.
Microwaves and radio frequencies can cause heating of any exposed part of the body.
Infra-red rays can cause skin burns and cataracts.
UV light can cause skin burns, skin cancer, conjunctivitis and arc eye.
Lasers can cause permanent, severe damage to the eye and skin.
Exposure to ionising and UV radiation can damage DNA and can cause health effects, such as cancer, later in life. The risks are small for low levels of exposure but exposure to high levels of ionising and non-ionising radiations can cause acute effects such as burns, tissue and organ damage.
What you have to do
Identify all sources of ionising and non-ionising radiation in your workplace and the risks they pose. Once you have identified the significant risks, you must control them.
Try and reduce any exposure to ionising and UV radiation as far as possible. For example, you may be able to use safer alternative processes or equipment such as ultrasonic, non-destructive testing instead of X-rays.
- before working with ionising radiation, depending on the level of risk for the work you do, notify, register or apply to HSE for consent
- make sure you are aware of the different potential sources of radiation in your workplace, particularly all sources of ionising radiations, UV light and high-power lasers
- consider getting competent advice from a radiation protection adviser (RPA); this is a legal requirement when working with ionising radiations - names and contact details of RPAs
- consider whether staff should be subject to medical surveillance – an RPA will help with this
- consider radon gas exposure as part of your risk assessment. This is naturally occurring and may be present in your workplace even if you do not do any other work with radiation
- ensure appropriate shielding and personal protective equipment is used to reduce exposure when working with ionising radiation and to protect the skin and eyes when working with hazardous sources of infra-red (for example, molten metal) and UV (for example, welding)
- seek expert advice where lasers are used for displays (for example, in bars, nightclubs and stage shows) and there could be a risk to the public
- override any interlocks preventing access to:
- high-voltage electrical equipment
- X-ray cabinets
- laser enclosures or machinery containing lasers
- use potentially harmful germicidal UV lamps as replacements in otherwise safe insect-killing devices or other fluorescent light fittings. Make sure you replace these with the correct type specified by the manufacturer
Radiation emergency: ionising radiations
If your work with ionising radiations could produce a radiation emergency (such as an event that could lead to a member of the public receiving a dose of ionising radiation above certain levels) the Radiation (Emergency Preparedness and Public Information) Regulations 2019 may apply.
Electromagnetic fields (EMFs)
Businesses are required to manage general risks in the workplace – this includes sources of non-ionising radiation, such as electromagnetic fields (EMFs), which are generated wherever electricity is used.
A scrap metal dealer bought a hand-held X-ray fluorescence analyser (sometimes called an XRF gun) to analyse the alloy content in scrap. These guns generate an intense beam of X-ray radiation at the front end of the equipment, and also result in a scattering of X-rays when they strike the test material.
When used properly, pointing away from all parts of the body, the radiation risks to operators and others will be minimal. However, if the equipment is damaged, incorrectly set up, or misused, there is the potential for exposure to high-radiation fields.
How the problem was tackled
The manager of the scrap yard consulted a radiation protection adviser (RPA), who helped the company carry out a risk assessment. This recommended that workers were trained in how to use the analyser safely and not to operate the gun without fully covering the X-ray aperture, or to hold the item being tested in their hand.
Users were also trained in what to do if the analyser was dropped or damaged. They were advised to buy an interlocked test box from the suppliers so they could test small parts safely. The RPA also agreed to measure the dose rates of the device in use to help the business meet its legal requirements.
By taking this action, the employer ensured that his workers and others were protected.
After media reports claiming some homes were prone to radon, the manager of a local engineering firm was approached by a number of workers wanting assurances that they were not at risk while at work.
The manager used the UKradon website to confirm the premises were in a Radon Affected Area, and that many employees spent their working day in ground-floor rooms, where radon gas is more likely to accumulate.
How the problem was tackled
The manager used HSE's guidance to carry out a radon assessment, which included making measurements. The results showed very high levels (and possibly significant radiation doses) in 2 rooms.
He consulted a radiation protection adviser on how to reduce his employees' exposures. Following this, he contacted a radon remediation specialist, who quickly installed a simple, underfloor sump/extract system to prevent the gas entering the premises.
Repeat measurements showed this was extremely effective in affording long-term protection, as the levels of radon were now very low.
The Ionising Radiation Regulations 2017 (IRR17) – find out more in publication L21 ‘Approved Code of Practice and guidance’.
The Radiation (Emergency Preparedness and Public Information) Regulations 20019 (REPPIR) – find out more about REPPIR
The Control of Artificial Optical Radiation at Work Regulations 2010 (AOR) – find out more about AOR in publication ‘Guidance for Employers on the Control of Artificial Optical Radiation’.
The Control of Electromagnetic Fields at Work Regulations 2016 (CEMFAW) - find out more about CEMFAW