- Welders are at risk of both acute and chronic health conditions from exposure to welding fumes.
- Even with compliance to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards, welders may still face health risks.
- Control and prevention methods, such as ventilation and the use of respiratory protection, can help mitigate these risks.
- Regular monitoring of welders’ exposure to fumes can help ensure the effectiveness of implemented controls.
The Silent Threat: Welding Fumes and Welder’s Health
Welding, an essential process in various industries, carries with it numerous risks for workers. Among the most significant of these is the exposure to welding fumes. This occupational hazard is often underestimated, yet it poses a significant threat to the health and well-being of welders. Despite compliance with OSHA’s Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs), workers can still experience negative health effects, both acute and chronic.
Navigate the article
Acute and Chronic Effects of Welding Fumes
In the short term, welders can suffer from “Metal Fume Fever,” a condition resulting from exposure to intense welding fume. Symptoms mimic those of the flu, such as chills, fever, fatigue, and body aches, usually lasting for 24 hours. The fumes from zinc, often used as a coating in galvanized metal, are particularly associated with this condition.
However, the long-term implications of exposure to welding fumes are far more severe. Chronic conditions like Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), Parkinson’s-type tremors, vision and hearing loss, emotional problems, and even lung cancer are all linked to prolonged exposure to different welding materials.
Unmasking the Toxic Elements in Welding Fumes
The various components of welding materials each carry their risks. They include a wide array of elements, such as Lead (Pb), Cadmium (Cd), Beryllium (Be), Mercury (Hg), Zinc (Zn), Iron (Fe), Cobalt (CO), Nickel (Ni), Copper (Cu), Manganese (Mn), Titanium (Ti), Antimony (Sb), Molybdenum (MO), Vanadium (V), Aluminum (Al), and gases like Carbon Monoxide (CO) and Carbon Dioxide (CO2). Chronic exposure to these elements can result in permanent disability or serious illnesses, including COPD, lung complications, pulmonary edema, tremors, and emotional problems.
Hexavalent chromium, found when welding on stainless steel or chrome, is a recognized carcinogen and is specifically regulated by OSHA Standard (29CFR1910.1026). Prolonged exposure to manganese-containing welding rods has been strongly linked to Parkinson’s-type tremors in welders.
Battling the Invisible Enemy: Controlling Welding Fumes
Controlling welding fumes is a complex task due to the challenging working conditions and multiple types of welding methods. There are several strategies for mitigating these risks, each with its advantages and limitations.
The Power of Ventilation
Ventilation, particularly local exhaust ventilation, is considered the most effective way of controlling welding fumes. This method captures welding fumes at the point of welding, reducing the exposure of the individual welder. However, this approach may introduce oxygen into the welding area, causing oxidation and potentially resulting in defective welds. Furthermore, certain welding conditions such as inside a pipe, vessel, or container may not allow enough room for adequate ventilation.
Protective Gear: The Last Line of Defense
Another mitigation strategy is the use of respiratory protection. However, adding a respiritor to a welder’s safety equipment, which often includes glasses, a hood, hard hat, leather apron, gloves, and safety shoes, can exacerbate the difficulty of the welding task. This difficulty is compounded by the variability in welding methods (STICK, MIG, TIG, Flux Core Arc, Submerged Arc, Plasma Arc, Torch Cutting, Shielded Metal Arc, Laser, and others), making uniform control of workers’ exposure more complex.
Regular Monitoring: A Crucial Step Towards Safety
Even with protective measures in place, the risk of fume exposure remains. To ensure the effectiveness of these controls, regular monitoring of welders’ exposure is crucial. Sampling/testing tools, such as small battery-powered air samplers, can be used to measure exposure levels. These devices can be attached to the welder’s belt or apron, with a sampling line leading to a filter clipped to the collar or shield.
However, the ultimate safety goal for any welding process is to control the individual welder’s exposure to metal fume as much as possible. Local exhaust ventilation systems, though tricky to design so as not to interfere with the welding process, are often the most effective. The constant adaptation of controls skillfully engineered for the specific welding method being used is a necessity. It is also vital to monitor welders regularly to verify the effectiveness of these controls.
Welding fume exposure remains a significant occupational hazard. But through vigilant adherence to safety measures, regular monitoring, and constant adaptation of protective methods, it’s possible to mitigate these risks and protect the welders who are an integral part of various industries.