17 Oct 2022

What are the dangers of welding fumes?
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Dangers of welding fumes

If you have a job in ductwork, fabrication or welding, it’s essential that employers carry out a complete risk assessment and annual LEV testing to determine which preventative measures need to be taken to control the risks associated with welding fume exposure.

 

Prolonged exposure to welding fumes can cause both acute and chronic health conditions. Occupational lung disease – including lung cancer – is the most common health risk, but welding fumes can also irritate the eyes and skin. Asphyxiation is also a significant health risk when welding in a confined space. This is why workplace health and safety is so important, not just in general, but to ensure those who weld as part of their job are safe from the risks involved in welding metal.

Employers are advised on how best to eliminate these dangers in the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) regulations. The HSE estimates that breathing metal fumes at work leads to the hospitalisation of 40-50 welders annually, and it’s an employer’s legal responsibility to follow the advice provided to protect workers’ wellbeing. 

So what are the dangers in welding fumes and how can you ensure exposure limits to protect your employees? Read on to find out how common elements can cause various health concerns, how to prevent inhaling welding fumes and ways you can ensure your employees are as safe as can be in the workplace from welding fumes.

Are welding fumes toxic?

Yes, welding fumes are considered toxic and harmful to your health, especially if the right precautions aren’t in place to extract fumes. This is because welding fumes are a complex mixture of various elements and compounds, depending on the materials being welded. Exposure to these chemicals can significantly increase the risk of developing occupational illnesses, of which we’ll dive into a little later on. Depending on the elements in the fumes can affect the human body in various ways, making it super important for welders and employers to take proper safety precautions.

The effects of different elements from welding fumes on the body

The composition of welding fumes can negatively affect the body in different ways, depending on the materials being welded. Below is a summary of the most common elements that can be released into the atmosphere when welding, as well as the symptoms that may occur if they’re inhaled.

1. Aluminium

Common in some welding applications, aluminium fumes may not be as toxic as some other metals, but nonetheless, can still irritate the eyes and respiratory system. Long-term exposure without proper protection can lead to chronic and long-term respiratory issues. Some of the short-term effects include eye, nose, throat, and lung irritation, headaches and difficulty breathing.

2. Arsenic

Welding stainless steel exposes welders to arsenic, as well as nickel, chromium, hexavalent chromium, manganese, and iron. Arsenic and inorganic compounds are present in all methods of welding and can adversely impact a welder’s health by affecting their lungs, skin, urinary tract, bladder, prostate, kidneys, and liver.

3. Beryllium

Beryllium and beryllium compounds form from the hardening agent in copper, magnesium, and aluminium alloys and electrical contacts. Breathing in beryllium can irritate your lungs, throat, and nose – and may cause pneumonia-like symptoms from one to two days after significant exposure. Your eyes can also feel irritated and may cause an itching or burning sensation.

4. Cadmium

Cadmium and cadmium compounds are present on the platings of base metals and stainless steels which contain cadmium. This element impacts the lungs, kidneys and prostate. It’s also known as a cancer-causing substance and has been linked to conditions such as emphysema, kidney failure, lung cancer and bone weakness.

5. Chromium

Chromium VI compounds are found in stainless steel alloys and also in welding rods and can have a detrimental effect on the lungs and sinuses. Welders may also experience allergy-like symptoms such as wheezing, shortness of breath, bronchitis, and asthma. Exposure to Chromium has also been known to damage the skin, eyes, kidney, and liver as well as provoke pulmonary congestion, abdominal pain, and teeth yellowing.

6. Cobalt

Commonly used in “hard facing” welding applications to improve the durability of metal surfaces, cobalt can lead to “hard metal lung disease,” a form of pneumoconiosis (also known as silicosis), as well as contact dermatitis. Other reported symptoms include lung congestion, abdominal discomfort, and discolouration and irritation of teeth.

7. Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde, a colourless gas, can be found in metal coatings and degreasing solvents. This chemical causes damage to the nasopharynx (the part of the throat at the back of the nose) and sinuses. Coming into contact with formaldehyde can also result in irritation to the skin, respiratory system, and eyes. Chronic exposure may also elevate the risk of developing cancers.

8. Lead

Inorganic lead compounds are present in solder, brass and bronze alloys; welding on lead-coated/containing materials can affect the kidneys, and brain and have been linked to conditions such as anaemia.

9. Manganese

Common in steel and some aluminium welding, manganese exposure can lead to a buildup of manganese in the lungs, liver, kidneys, and brain. Men in particular, who are exposed to manganese at work may also face a higher chance of having fertility issues. Being around too much manganese in the air for a long time can lead to a condition similar to Parkinson’s disease, known as “manganism”, such as shaking, slow movements, stiff muscles, and poor balance.

10. Nickel

Chromium and nickel in welding fumes can be the result of welding stainless steel and welding rods. It can cause damage to the lungs and sinuses. In some cases, it’s also possible to experience a rash or dermatitis.

11. Iron oxides

Iron oxides are given off during welds as it is one of the main components of steel, which is known to affect the lungs. Typically found in mild steel welding, iron oxides are associated with “metal fume fever.” This condition manifests itself with flu-like symptoms such as chills, fever, and muscle aches, usually occurring several hours after exposure. 

12. Zinc oxides

Welding galvanised steel fumes include zinc oxides in some cases. Inhaling these fumes can lead to conditions such as metal fume fever or “zinc shakes,” which are characterised by symptoms like elevated body temperature, headaches, nausea, and chest discomfort. Long-term exposure is particularly concerning because lead in galvanised steel can vaporise alongside zinc, which has been associated with a wide range of severe health issues, including the risk of developing cancer.

What are the health risks associated with welding fumes?

Although we covered the risks involved when inhaling common elements released as a result of welding, here is everything you need to know about welding fume risks in a nutshell.

Acute respiratory health effects of welding fumes

According to HSE, these health effects can occur relatively soon after welding fume exposure:

  • Irritation to throat and larger airways in the lungs
  • Acute irritant-induced asthma 
  • Metal fume fever – developing flu-like symptoms after welding
  • Acute pneumonia 

Chronic respiratory health effects of welding fumes

Chronic respiratory health effects associated with exposure to welding fumes tend to develop more gradually and can lead to more serious diseases, such as: 

  • Lung cancer
  • Welder’s lung – a metal deposition in the lung due to exposure to welding fumes
  • Occupational asthma 
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – as suggested by current evidence, although there is not yet enough evidence to determine this as fact

Asphyxiation due to welding in a confined space

Welding in a confined space can lead to death by asphyxiation (suffocation from lack of oxygen). This can occur when workers are exposed to: 

  • Carbon monoxide, which can impair the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity
  • Shielding gases (including argon, helium and nitrogen, or argon-based mixtures containing carbon dioxide, oxygen or both)

It is advised that welding only occurs in a confined space when absolutely necessary. 

Other health effects caused by welding fume exposure

  • Allergic contact dermatitis 
  • Some may display neurological symptoms that are comparable to Parkinson’s disease – including speech and panic disorders
  • Arc-eye – an acute injury to the front region of the eye, caused by radiation exposure 
  • Harmful noise levels produced while welding
  • Ocular melanoma – a rare form of eye cancer 

How to protect your workers and prevent inhalation of welding fumes

Welding fumes will be released no matter the precautions you take, however, there are ways to both reduce welding fumes and protect your employees from inhaling them. In fact, there are various health and safety checks you should be doing as a business owner, as well as precautionary measures you can take to control the various dangers associated with exposure to welding fumes. The following methods can be used to reduce welding fumes and exposure: 

  • Using alternative cold joining techniques where possible 
  • Producing fewer fumes when welding 
    • One way to reduce welding fumes can be utilising techniques such as distance welding or turntables, or even fully enclosing the area that’s being joined Another option is to simply cut back on the amount of welding performed and spacing out jobs to reduce exposure as much as possible. MIG welding is known to produce less fumes in comparison to stick welding, so if your welders need more training – MIG may be the way to go
  • Local exhaust ventilation (LEV) – being an engineering system that’s designed to reduce airborne contaminants – such as dust, gas, mist and vapour. These could include on-torch extraction, extracted benches, and movable LED 
  • Using welding curtains to prevent arc-eye
  • Using respiratory protective equipment (RPE) – which must be suitable for each individual wearer 
  • Using personal protective equipment (PPE) – can help prevent inhaling welding fumes to both direct and reflected ultraviolet light 
  • Providing training to welders to ensure they understand the dangers associated with welding fumes and how to avoid these 

Frequently asked questions about the dangers of welding fumes

What are the hazards of welding?

There are a number of risks involved in welding in addition to inhaling welding fumes, including:

  1. Electrical hazards (faulty wiring and improper use)
  2. Burns due to improper handling or manufacturing faults of welding equipment
  3. Fire risks

Is welding bad for your lungs?

Yes – welding can be bad for your lungs if precautions are not taken to reduce the inhalation of welding fumes, or workplace best practices aren’t in place or used. In the same HSE resource we referenced previously, welders are at an increased risk of lung and respiratory issues.

Why is tiredness common after welding?

It’s common for welders to experience tiredness due to their high risk of exposure to harmful fumes and gases. These fumes can lead to a variety of symptoms, ranging from dizziness to increased risks of cancer. Plus, the physical exertion of welding can lead to tiredness, particularly when welding awkward positions of metal joints, and the added concentration of producing a high-quality weld. 

Are there legal implications for employers who do not adequately protect employees from welding fumes?

Yes. The HSE states that by law, employers must do what they can to protect employees from welding fumes. Some of the ways you can reduce welding fumes include:

  • Using cold joining techniques
  • LEV
  • Using RPE and PPE
  • Having good ventilation
  • Risk assessments
  • Educating welders on the risks and how to use equipment properly

If you’re looking to optimise ventilation in your workplace or build an effective workplace safety program, Airmatic is here to help. Backed by years of industry expertise, we can work with you to provide quality ductwork and fabrication, as well as extraction solutions to best suit your industry – whether that includes welding or otherwise. Keen to find out more? Contact our team today. 

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