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Written By: Robert E. Sheriff, CIH, CSP, President
October 23, 2019
Welding Fumes, Hazard to Welder’s Health
Welding fumes contain a variety of metals, gases, and chemicals that can wreak havoc on a welder’s lungs. The smoke emitted from welding may contain hexavalent chromium especially when welding on stainless steel. It may also contain lead, manganese, cadmium, nickel, zinc and any other metals that are components of the welded metal and the welding rod/wire/stick. All welding emits fumes whether MIG, TIG, stick, torch, laser, and plasma torch. The hazards of each are different. The only way to determine if the welding process can be a hazard to a welder’s health is to sample the welder. The most common way is to place a portable sampler on the welder that collects a “breathing zone” sample of the welding emissions, and have the sample analyzed by a properly accredited laboratory that does industrial hygiene sample analysis.
Welding is tough work. Not many who begin as welders retire as welders. Many end up with respiratory problems such as COPD. Eventually, practically every welder develops cataracts. Neck and back problems are also a foregone conclusion.
Types of Welding and Health Hazards
There is also a long list of possible health problems depending on the type of welding. One welding fume hazard, hexavalent chromium, has been identified by OSHA as a suspect carcinogen. OSHA now enforces its exposure limits (29 CFR 1910.1026-General Industry) and (29 CFR 1926.1126-Construction). The most likely exposure to “Chrome VI” is welding of stainless steel or chrome, also when using chromium-containing welding rods when doing stick welding.
Other welding health hazards include:
Manganese: From carbon steel or heavy production welding of other steel, it can cause nerve system damage resulting in Parkinson’s disease.
Nickel: From nickel alloy electrodes, nickel plating, cryogenic steels, is a suspect cancer-causing agent.
Lead: Present in most steels, in higher levels in maraging steel and from lead paint on existing metal surfaces, damages muscles, bone, and nerves; especially dangerous to welders’ families with children 6 or under.
Copper Welding: Wires (MIG), Bronze, Copper Coating, and Copper Brazing, Brass can cause lung irritation.
Zinc: Plated metal, galvanized metals-metal fume fever can cause a flu-like illness.
Total Welding Fume: From heavy production welding, welding inside a vessel, pipe or container without good air circulation can cause chronic respiratory problems. This is the type of welding that creates the greatest possibility of adverse health effects for a welder.
Ozone: MIG and TIG welding and aluminum welding can cause eye, nose, throat irritation and lung damage.
And that’s not all. Workers welding or cutting surfaces with paints, solvents, plastics, and other coatings will likely be exposed to decomposition products such as oxides of nitrogen, phosgene, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide.
Evaluating each working environment is essential. Under OSHA rules, it is generally required to identify hazards that are present and then to implement controls, such as ventilation, substitution of high hazard materials for less hazardous ones, personal protective devices or more effective training.
It is important to remember that respiratory protection is the least effective method of protecting the worker from welding fume hazards. In some cases, such respirators may increase the potential for injury because of the added burden the respirator adds to all the other necessary protective equipment welders must wear.
Testing for welding fume hazards such as monitoring or personnel sampling/testing can be performed by a Certified Industrial Hygienist or an Industrial Hygienist.
A Certified Industrial Hygienist, by virtue of training, education, and experience, has demonstrated the ability to recognize and test for welding fume hazards and to recommend appropriate controls.
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