- 40-50 welders are hospitalised every year with pneumonia caused by welding fume
- 2 of these welders die every year
- 9 welders every year suffer from work-related asthma problems that lead them to claim benefits
- Stainless steel fume contains harmful chromium oxide (Cr₂O₃) and nickel oxide (NiO)
- Welding fume is classified as potentially carcinogenic to humans¹
Understanding the problem
The fume given off by welding and hot cutting processes is a varied mix of airborne gases and very fine particles which, if inhaled, can cause health problems. Harmful gases that may be present in the fume include nitrous oxide (N₂O), carbon dioxide (CO₂), carbon monoxide (CO), argon (Ar), helium (He) and ozone (O₃) .
Four of the leading occupational health hazards in welding are respiratory problems, vibration issues, noise-related problems and musculoskeletal disorders (MSD). Let’s take a look at all of these in a little more detail and also consider how to manage the risks involved:
- Pneumonia – Welders are particularly prone to a lung infection that can lead to severe and sometimes fatal pneumonia. While modern antibiotics usually cure the infection, severe cases lead to 40-50 welders being hospitalised every year. Of these cases, around 2 will be fatal
- Occupational asthma – Even though around 9 workers each year get asthma so badly that they are able to claim benefits, a recent study by HSE determined that welding fume could not be conclusively proven to cause asthma. HSE still recommends welders protect themselves and control welding fume to lowest possible levels
- Cancers – Welding fume is internationally classified as potentially carcinogenic to humans. This classification includes all welding fume although it is primarily associated with stainless steel welding
- Metal fume fever – Many welders report flu like symptoms after welding, particularly at the start of a working week, but this does not usually have any lasting effects. Unfortunately, the stories that suggest drinking milk before welding prevents you getting metal fume fever are simply not true
- Irritation of throat and lungs – Gases and fine particles in welding fume can cause dryness of the throat, tickling coughing or a tight chest. Ozone is a particular cause of this when TIG welding stainless steels and aluminium. Extreme exposure to ozone can cause fluid on the lungs
- Temporarily reduced lung function – Overall lung capacity and peak flow are affected by prolonged exposure to welding fume, but the effects are not permanent
For detailed information on how to manage all of these issues, take a look at the COSHH Guidelines.
Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) can help you address the problem of fume if other preventative measures do not reduce it below the workplace exposure limit (WEL). Follow our RPE checklist to ensure you are giving your workers the correct protection:
- Disposable face masks can also offer protection for short jobs. Just like reusable respirators, these should be fit tested on the individual as one type of mask does not fit all
- Reusable respirators should be inspected every month and records must be kept
- Battery powered filtering welding helmets are more expensive. This type of equipment can last a long time if well looked after, and may be a cost effective option in the long term²
In terms of hand-arm vibration, there are particular risks with tasks like grinding and needle scaling that are closely associated with the welding process. The Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005 require you to make sure all risks are controlled and that you provide instruction and training to employees on the risks involved and the actions being taken to deal with them.
These regulations include an exposure action value (EAV) and an exposure limit value (ELV) based on a combination of the vibration at the grip points on the equipment and the time spent gripping it. To better understand these values, check out the HSE hand-arm vibration exposure calculator.
By complying with the regulations and you will help to prevent disability from Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) and vibration-related Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS). Some employees may develop early signs and symptoms of HAVS and CTS even at low exposures, but your health surveillance should identify any issues early on. Appropriate action will alleviate the problem. While HAVS can be prevented, once the damage has been done it cannot be cured.
Certain cases of HAVS and all cases of vibration-related CTS must be reported to HSE in accordance with the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR).
With the exception of TIG-Welding, electric arc welding can generate harmful levels of noise. The other tasks that welders will typically do and the working environment are also particularly noisy. This list gives you a good idea of the noise levels associated with different tasks within the welding process:
- TIG – up to 75 dB(A)
- Manual Metal Arc (MMA) – 85-95 dB(A)
- Metal Inert Gas(MIG) – 95-102 dB(A)
- Plasma cutting (hand-held up to 100A, cutting up to 25mm only – 98-105 dB(A)
- Flame gouging – 95 dB(A)
- Flame cutting – up to 100 dB(A)
- Air arc gouging – 100-115 dB(A)
- Deslagging/chipping – 105 dB(A)
- Grinding – 95-105 dB(A)
The best way to manage the problem is to eliminate the noisy process altogether, for example by buying in material cut to size by the supplier, though this may not always be feasible. Following the hierarchy of control, the next best options are substitution, engineering controls, administrative controls such as training and work scheduling and then finally personal protective equipment (PPE).
Ear plugs, ear muffs or other hearing protection should be selected on the following criteria:
- Ability to reduce the noise exposure
- Compatibility with other items of PPE, such as welding helmets (useful options include slim-line ear muffs with a neck band rather than a head band)
- Suitability for the activity and working environment
If PPE is provided, it is vital your workers are given appropriate training to ensure they wear their protection in the correct way and at all required times.
Musculoskeletal Disorder (MSD)
The manual handling carried out by welders that are repeated regularly or involve twisting and turning into awkward postures can be particularly hazardous.⁵
The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 require you to consider the risks to the health and safety of workers when selecting the equipment they will use. This includes manual handling risks. Choosing the right tool will reduce the chances of:
- Personal suffering caused by musculoskeletal disorders
- Financial burden of sickness absence and increased insurance premiums
- Reduced productivity
- Restricting earning potential of employees unable to return to the same type of work⁶
Health and Safety within the welding industry has improved significantly over the last few years, although it would be fair to say that there is still work to be done.
For a summary of this blog, download our Top Health Hazards Facing Welders Quick Guide.
If you’d like to know more about the long-term health and safety issues in metal processing and how best to deal with them, call the 3M helpline on 0870 60 800 60 for an expert opinion.