Welding Fumes: Health Risks, Legal Obligations and Control
Over the last two weeks of Health and Safety Month 2021, WorkSafe Victoria ran free 45-minute webinars on a variety of topics. The theme for the month was “You learn something new every day”. I attended the session about Welding Fumes, which was presented by Dr Tim Driscoll, School of Public Health, University of Sydney and Alex Simovski, Senior Occupational Hygienist, WorkSafe.
Welding fumes are classified as carcinogenic, with short-term effects being irritation of the eyes and mucous membranes, and metal fume fever. Long-term effects include scarring of the lungs, asthma and lung cancer. Due to the long latency period before onset of symptoms, there is difficulty in linking the symptoms to the causation factor.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified welding fumes as a Group 2 to Group 1 carcinogen. Group 1 = Carcinogenic to humans; Group 2 = Probably and possibly carcinogenic to humans. Their meeting in 2017 showed clearly an increase in lung caner after prolonged exposure to welding fumes. There was also some evidence in bladder cancer, but not enough evidence for classification.
Safe Work Australia will be undertaking research on exposure standards. They will depend on the metals involved in the welding process, varying from 0.002mg/m3 for beryllium to 5mg/m3 for aluminium oxide and iron oxide.
Air monitoring can be conducted by Industrial Hygienists to determine the amount of welding fumes in a workplace. Personal monitoring is preferable, although static monitoring may have some use. These records must be communicated to the relevant employees and maintained for the legislated time frame, which could be up to 30 years.
The Hierarchy of Controls should be used to reduce the risk of inhaling welding fumes. As usual this starts with elimination (purchase of prefabricated material) going down to PPE (respirators).
Some tips for control:
- Kneeling over the work is more hazardous than working on a bench; extraction ventilation at the source removes the fumes from a welder’s breathing zone more effectively than overhead extraction.
- Longer work duration increases the amount of fumes potentially inhaled, as does the number of welders working in the same area.
- Respiratory protection can be used in combination with extraction ventilation, but can prove uncomfortable/hot over long periods. Dust masks do not provide any protection from the fumes.
- Other employees working in the same area are also exposed to fumes; exposure will depend on the ventilation in the area.
- Tig welding generates the least amount of fumes; soldering uses different temperatures, thus resulting in much lower generation of fumes.
Many businesses involved in welding are small businesses with a lack of understanding of the problem and how to control the risks. It is recommended that employers work with employees in developing a site-specific solution to exposure to welding fumes, as this is more likely to gain acceptance.
WorkSafe Victoria will make an edited version of the webinar available on their website in late November.