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Smelting and Refining

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Adapted from the 3rd edition, Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety.

In the production and refining of metals, valuable components are separated from worthless material in a series of different physical and chemical reactions. The end-product is metal containing controlled amounts of impurities. Primary smelting and refining produces metals directly from ore concentrates, while secondary smelting and refining produces metals from scrap and process waste. Scrap includes bits and pieces of metal parts, bars, turnings, sheets and wire that are off-specification or worn-out but are capable of being recycled (see the article “Metal reclamation” in this chapter).

Overview of Processes

Two metal recovery technologies are generally used to produce refined metals, pyrometallurgical and hydrometallurgical. Pyrometallurgical processes use heat to separate desired metals from other materials. These processes use differences between oxidation potentials, melting points, vapour pressures, densities and/or miscibility of the ore components when melted. Hydrometallurgical technologies differ from pyrometallurgical processes in that the desired metals are separated from other materials using techniques that capitalize on differences between constituent solubilities and/or electrochemical properties while in aqueous solutions.


 During pyrometallic processing, an ore, after being beneficiated (concentrated by crushing, grinding, floating and drying), is sintered or roasted (calcined) with other materials such as baghouse dust and flux. The concentrate is then smelted, or melted, in a blast furnace in order to fuse the desired metals into an impure molten bullion. This bullion then undergoes a third pyrometallic process to refine the metal to the desired level of purity. Each time the ore or bullion is heated, waste materials are created. Dust from ventilation and process gases may be captured in a baghouse and are either disposed of or returned to the process, depending upon the residual metal content. Sulphur in the gas is also captured, and when concentrations are above 4% it can be turned into sulphuric acid. Depending upon the origin of the ore and its residual metals content, various metals such as gold and silver may also be produced as by-products.

Roasting is an important pyrometallurgical process. Sulphating roasting is used in the production of cobalt and zinc. Its purpose is to separate the metals so that they can be transformed into a water-soluble form for further hydrometallurgical processing.

The smelting of sulphidic ores produces a partially oxidized metal concentrate (matte). In smelting, the worthless material, usually iron, forms a slag with fluxing material and is converted into the oxide. The valuable metals acquire the metallic form at the converting stage, which takes place in converting furnaces. This method is used in copper and nickel production. Iron, ferrochromium, lead, magnesium and ferrous compounds are produced by reduction of the ore with charcoal and a flux (limestone), the smelting process usually taking place in an electric furnace. (See also the Iron and steel industry chapter.) Fused salt electrolysis, used in aluminium production, is another example of a pyrometallurgical process.

The high temperature required for the pyrometallurgical treatment of metals is obtained by burning fossil fuels or by using the exothermic reaction of the ore itself (e.g., in the flash smelting process). The flash smelting process is an example of an energy-saving pyrometallurgical process in which iron and sulphur of the ore concentrate are oxidized. The exothermic reaction coupled with a heat recovery system saves a lot of energy for smelting. The high sulphur recovery of the process is also beneficial for environmental protection. Most of the recently built copper and nickel smelters use this process.


Examples of hydrometallurgical processes are leaching, precipitation, electrolytic reduction, ion exchange, membrane separation and solvent extraction. The first stage of hydrometallurgical processes is the leaching of valuable metals from less valuable material, for example, with sulphuric acid. Leaching is often preceded by pre-treatment (e.g., sulphating roasting). The leaching process often requires high pressure, the addition of oxygen or high temperatures. Leaching may also be carried out with electricity. From the leaching solution the desired metal or its compound is recovered by precipitation or reduction using different methods. Reduction is carried out, for example, in cobalt and nickel production with gas.

Electrolysis of metals in aqueous solutions is also considered to be a hydrometallurgical process. In the process of electrolysis the metallic ion is reduced to the metal. The metal is in a weak acid solution from which it precipitates on cathodes under the influence of an electrical current. Most non-ferrous metals can also be refined by electrolysis.

Often metallurgical processes are a combination of pyro- and hydrometallurgical processes, depending on the ore concentrate to be treated and the type of metal to be refined. An example is nickel production.

Hazards and Their Prevention

Prevention of health risks and accidents in the metallurgical industry is primarily an educational and technical question. Medical examinations are secondary and have only a complementary role in the prevention of health risks. A harmonious exchange of information and collaboration between the planning, line, safety and occupational health departments within the company give the most efficient result in the prevention of health risks.

The best and least costly preventive measures are those taken at the planning stage of a new plant or process. In planning of new production facilities, the following aspects should be taken into account as a minimum:

  • The potential sources of air contaminants should be enclosed and isolated.
  • The design and placement of the process equipment should allow easy access for maintenance purposes.
  • Areas in which a sudden and unexpected hazard may occur should be monitored continuously. Adequate warning notices should be included. For example, areas in which arsine or hydrogen cyanide exposure might be possible should be under continuous monitoring.
  • Addition and handling of poisonous process chemicals should be planned so that manual handling can be avoided.
  • Personal occupational hygiene sampling devices should be used in order to evaluate the real exposure of the individual worker, whenever possible. Regular fixed monitoring of gases, dusts and noise gives an overview of exposure but has only a complementary role in the evaluation of exposure dose.
  • In space planning, the requirements of future changes or extensions of the process should be taken into account so that the occupational hygiene standards of the plant will not worsen.
  • There should be a continuous system of training and education for safety and health personnel, as well as for foremen and workers. New workers in particular should be thoroughly informed about potential health risks and how to prevent them in their own working environments. In addition, training should be done whenever a new process is introduced.
  • Work practices are important. For example, poor personal hygiene by eating and smoking in the worksite may considerably increase personal exposure.
  • The management should have a health and safety monitoring system which produces adequate data for technical and economic decision making.


The following are some of the specific hazards and precautions that are found in smelting and refining.


The smelting and refining industry has a higher rate of injuries than most other industries. Sources of these injuries include: splattering and spills of molten metal and slag resulting in burns; gas explosions and explosions from contact of molten metal with water; collisions with moving locomotives, wagons, travelling cranes and other mobile equipment; falls of heavy objects; falls from a height (e.g., while accessing a crane cab); and slipping and tripping injuries from obstruction of floors and passageways.

Precautions include: adequate training, appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) (e.g., hard hats, safety shoes, work gloves and protective clothing); good storage, housekeeping and equipment maintenance; traffic rules for moving equipment (including defined routes and an effective signal and warning system); and a fall protection programme.


Heat stress illnesses such as heat stroke are a common hazard, primarily due to infrared radiation from furnaces and molten metal. This is especially a problem when strenuous work must be done in hot environments.

Prevention of heat illnesses can involve water screens or air curtains in front of furnaces, spot cooling, enclosed air-conditioned booths, heat-protective clothing and air-cooled suits, allowing sufficient time for acclimatization, work breaks in cool areas and an adequate supply of beverages for frequent drinking.

Chemical hazards

Exposure to a wide variety of hazardous dusts, fumes, gases and other chemicals can occur during smelting and refining operations. Crushing and grinding ore in particular can result in high exposures to silica and toxic metal dusts (e.g., containing lead, arsenic and cadmium). There can also be dust exposures during furnace maintenance operations. During smelting operations, metal fumes can be a major problem.

Dust and fume emissions can be controlled by enclosure, automation of processes, local and dilution exhaust ventilation, wetting down of materials, reduced handling of materials and other process changes. Where these are not adequate, respiratory protection would be needed.

Many smelting operations involve the production of large amounts of sulphur dioxide from sulphide ores and carbon monoxide from combustion processes. Dilution and local exhaust ventilation (LEV) are essential.

Sulphuric acid is produced as a by-product of smelting operations and is used in electrolytic refining and leaching of metals. Exposure can occur both to the liquid and to sulphuric acid mists. Skin and eye protection and LEV is needed.

The smelting and refining of some metals can have special hazards. Examples include nickel carbonyl in nickel refining, fluorides in aluminium smelting, arsenic in copper and lead smelting and refining, and mercury and cyanide exposures during gold refining. These processes require their own special precautions.

Other hazards

Glare and infrared radiation from furnaces and molten metal can cause eye damage including cataracts. Proper goggles and face shields should be worn. High levels of infrared radiation may also cause skin burns unless protective clothing is worn.

High noise levels from crushing and grinding ore, gas discharge blowers and high-power electric furnaces can cause hearing loss. If the source of the noise cannot be enclosed or isolated, then hearing protectors should be worn. A hearing conservation program including audiometric testing and training should be instituted.

Electrical hazards can occur during electrolytic processes. Precautions include proper electrical maintenance with lockout/tagout procedures; insulated gloves, clothing and tools; and ground fault circuit interrupters where needed.

Manual lifting and handling of materials can cause back and upper extremity injuries. Mechanical lifting aids and proper training in lifting methods can reduce this problem.

Pollution and Environmental Protection

Emissions of irritant and corrosive gases like sulphur dioxide, hydrogen sulphide and hydrogen chloride may contribute to air pollution and cause corrosion of metals and concrete within the plant and in the surrounding environment. The tolerance of vegetation to sulphur dioxide varies depending on the type of forest and soil. In general, evergreen trees tolerate lower concentrations of sulphur dioxide than deciduous ones. Particulate emissions may contain non-specific particulates, fluorides, lead, arsenic, cadmium and many other toxic metals. Wastewater effluent may contain a variety of toxic metals, sulphuric acid and other impurities. Solid wastes can be contaminated with arsenic, lead, iron sulphides, silica and other pollutants.

Smelter management should include evaluation and control of emissions from the plant. This is specialized work which should be carried out only by personnel thoroughly familiar with the chemical properties and toxicities of the materials discharged from the plant processes. The physical state of the material, the temperature at which it leaves the process, other materials in the gas stream and other factors must all be considered when planning measures to control air pollution. It is also desirable to maintain a weather station, to keep meteorological records and to be prepared to reduce output when weather conditions are unfavourable for dispersal of stack effluents. Field trips are necessary to observe the effect of air pollution on residential and farming areas.

Sulphur dioxide, one of the major contaminants, is recovered as sulphuric acid when present in sufficient quantity. Otherwise, to meet emission standards, sulphur dioxide and other hazardous gaseous wastes are controlled by scrubbing. Particulate emissions are commonly controlled by fabric filters and electrostatic precipitators.

Large amounts of water are used in flotation processes such as copper concentration. Most of this water is recycled back into the process. Tailings from the flotation process are pumped as slurry into sedimentation ponds. Water is recycled in the process. Metal-containing process water and rainwater are cleaned in water-treatment plants before discharging or recycling.

Solid-phase wastes include slags from smelting, blowdown slurries from sulphur dioxide conversion to sulphuric acid and sludges from surface impoundments (e.g., sedimentation ponds). Some slags can be reconcentrated and returned to smelters for reprocessing or recovery of other metals present. Many of these solid-phase wastes are hazardous wastes that must be stored according to environmental regulations.



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