The Health Effects of Workers in the Metal Welding Industry

Fast Facts

  • Welding fumes cause pneumonia that could hospitalize 40-50 welders every year
  • An average of 2 welders die every year
  • An average of 9 welders suffer from asthma-related problems each year
  • Harmful compounds such as Chromium oxide(Cr₂O₃) and nickel oxide (NiO) are found in Stainless steel fumes
  • Welding Fume is carcinogenic to humans

Understanding the problem

Every industry has its risks and dangerous, with operators of the largest cranes facing risks associated with falls and anxiety and the welding industry facing other internal health risks such as those that will be discussed below. Harmful gases and very fine particles are carried off when the smoke given off by the welding and hot cutting process. These fumes can cause serious health problems when inhaled. Dangerous gases such as nitrous oxide (N₂O), carbon dioxide (CO₂), carbon monoxide (CO), argon (Ar), helium (He) and ozone (O₃) are present in the fume.

Respiratory problems, vibration issues, ear problems and musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) are the four of the leading work-related health hazards in welding. Here are some of the usual health conditions suffered by welders and how to manage the risks involved:

Respiratory illnesses

  • Pneumonia– Welders are very prone to lung diseases that can lead to severe and sometimes fatal pneumonia. While modern antibiotics can usually take care of the infection, an average of 40-50 cases still results to hospitalization every year. Of these cases, around 2 will be fatal
  • Work-related asthma–Around 9 workers suffer severe asthma annually 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 advises welders to defend themselves and minimize the welding fumes by setting it to the lowest possible settings.
  • Cancers– Welding fume has been classified as possibly carcinogenic to humans. This classification includes all welding fume although it is primarily associated with stainless steel welding
  • Metal fume fever – Many welders suffered from temporaty flu like symptoms after welding, particularly at the start of a working week. Myths like drinking milk before welding prevents you getting metal fume fever are simply not true
  • Irritation of throat and lungs – Dryness of the throat, tickling coughing or a tight chest are the common effects of fine particles in welding fume and gases such as Ozone when TIG welding stainless steels and aluminium. Severe contact to ozone can cause lung fluids.
  • Temporarily reduced lung function – Although the effects are not permanent, the overall lung capacity and peak flow are affected by prolonged exposure to welding fume. 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:
  1. Disposable face masks can provide adequate protection for short jobs. Just like reusable respirators, these should be fit tested on each individual as one type of mask does not fit all
  2. Monthly inspection should be done monthly and records kept up to date.
  3. Though expensive, battery powered filtering welding helmets are the most cost-effective option for the long term protection of the welders.

 

Hand-arm vibration

Grinding and needle scaling tasks that are closely associated with the welding process also come with risks, in terms of hand-arm vibration. This is different to the crane industry with the vibration from operating frannas in that welding sees constant vibration day in day out. It is required by The Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005 to ensure that all risks are controlled, proper instruction and training should be provided to employees, and the actions being taken to deal with them.

An Exposure Limit Value (ELV) and an Exposure Action Value (EAV are included in the regulations, and are based on a combination of the vibration at the grip points on the equipment and the time spent gripping it.

Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) and vibration-related Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) disability can be prevented by compliance to with these regulations. Health surveillance can easily identify any issues early on especially when some employees may develop early signs and symptoms of HAVS and CTS even at low exposures. Proper precaution can minimize the problem. Though HAVS can be prevented, it is incurable.

HSE requires the compliance to the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR), which states that specific cases of HAVS and vibration-related CTS cases must be reported.

Noise

 

With the exception of TIG-Welding, electric arc welding and making welded mesh panels can cause harmful levels of noise. The project areas as well as many other tasks that welders take on are also particularly noisy. This list gives you a good idea of the noise levels related 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)

 

Eliminating the noisy process altogether is the best way to manage the problem. Take for instance, by buying customized size material from supplier, you no longer have to cut the material needed once on site, though this may not always be feasible. Engineering controls, regular substitution, training and work scheduling and providing personal protective equipment (PPE) are the next best options.

Ear muffs, ear plugs or other hearing protection should be selected on the following criteria:

  1. It can noise exposure
  2. Comfortable to wear
  3. Suitability for the activity and working environment

 

If proper equipment 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 in creating anything from metal welding such as wire furniture, that are repeated regularly or involve twisting and turning into awkward postures can be dangerous.

The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 regulates that proper equipment should be used to consider the health risks and safety of workers. This includes manual handling risks. Using 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 work

 

Health and Safety within the welding industry has improved considerably over the years, although it would be fair to say there is still a lot to improve on.