Oooh, that Smell
In the course of their work, welders can be exposed to welding fume and gases. Breathing welding fume/gases can be harmful to health and the impact is very often underestimated. The constituents of the weld fume depend on several factors:
- Welding type
- Metal type
- Surface Coating (e.g., zinc, chrome or cadmium)
- Contamination such as paints or oils
Welding fume contains a mixture of particles and gases. The visible fume cloud is made up mainly of very fine particles of metal, metal oxide, and flux. If inhaled, these can cause ill health. The fumes from welding stainless steel (contains chromium and nickel) and specialty metals that include cadmium or beryllium and are particularly dangerous. The gases can include carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, ozone (especially when welding aluminum), and shielding gases, such as argon or helium.
Though most metals don’t usually contain hexavalent chromium, when the metal is heated to a high temperature, the chromium reacts with oxygen to form compounds, and hexavalent chromium is one of them.
Harmful health effects depend on the amount of fumes, type created, and length of time exposed time to the gases. Respiratory protection typically is provided where it is not practical to use other controls, or where additional personal protection is needed. PPE can range from a simple face mask to filtered air units (PAPR) to supplied air (SCBA) in high-risk situations.
With the occasional tack welding outside, fumes and gases are unlikely to cause a problem. However, welding in poorly ventilated areas can severely damage your health, both short term and long term issues can develop.
Short-term health effects include:
- Respiratory irritation of both throat and lungs (especially from ozone created during tungsten inert gas (TIG) welding of stainless steel and aluminum)
- Temporarily reduced lung function, e.g., where breathing is more natural when not working, on the weekend, for example, compared to during the week
- Metal fume fever, which has similar symptoms to flu and can be caused by high fume levels from welding galvanized metal or, in some cases, mild steel
Long-term health effects include:
- Asthma, especially when working with stainless steel which contains nickel and chromium
- Cancer, particularly when welding metals containing nickel and chromium (such as stainless steel) and specialist metals that contain cadmium or beryllium
- Nervous system damage from manganese, which is in many welding rods
- Pneumonia, welders are particularly prone to a lung infection that can lead to severe, and sometimes fatal, pneumonia
One of the most practical method to prevent potential exposure is to take time when planning the job/project to choose your equipment and material. Knowing what materials and processes needed to work the job/project will allow you to think through what can be done to reduce exposures. However, sometimes even with the best of planning this isn't feasible. When that isn't possible, fume extractors are an excellent option for reducing exposures.
Lastly, when all other efforts are exhausted, protection can be assured by using the appropriate respirator. Consult your local safety professional for help in choosing the right job-specific respirator, and for help in getting your Team medically qualified, and ensuring proper fit.