Controlling Welding Fume Exposure in the Workplace

  • 2019-08-01

By Joe Murphy, CHMM, Gallagher Bassett ServicesWCD Group Division

Welding fumes are a common issue to many industrial and manufacturing business sectors. If not properly controlled, these welding processes produce visible smoke and potentially harmful fumes and gas by-products for workers and others nearby. This can lead to adverse employee health effects which can result in reduced productivity and eventual worker’s compensation claims.

Electric arc is the most common type of welding, using electric current to melt the base and filler metals together. Some other types of welding processes include Flux Core Arc Welding (FCAW), Shielded Metal Arc Welding (SMAW), Gas Metal Arc Welding (GMAW or MIG), and Tungsten Inert Gas (TIG) welding. Oxy-fuel torch-cutting, plasma cutting, and “brazing” are also welding-related processes, which involves the melting of metal and generations of fumes.

Welding produces a variety of harmful fumes and oxides depending on the base substrate and filler metal compounds being used. These commonly include aluminum, antimony, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium (hexavalent chromium), cobalt, copper, iron, lead, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, silver, tin, titanium, vanadium, and zinc.

Acute exposures to welding fumes and gases can result in eye, nose, and throat irritation, dizziness, and nausea. Long term exposure can result in a variety of health effects including metal fume fever, stomach ulcers, kidney and central nervous system damage, pulmonary system/lung damage, and various forms of cancer. Prolonged exposure to manganese fume is of particular concern because it can cause symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease. Hexavalent chromium (Chromium VI) is also of particular concern because of its high toxicity.

Adequate general ventilation and providing sufficient fresh air to a worker’s breathing zone are critical to reducing exposure to welding fumes and gases. Welding outdoors does not guarantee that workers will not be exposed to harmful welding fumes. A variety of portable and fixed local exhaust ventilation systems (LEV), fume hoods, and welding extractor guns are commonly used to control welding fumes, pulling them away from the workers’ breathing zone.

It is important to review and test your facility’s welding operations to ensure worker safety and compliance with applicable OSHA regulations, action limits (AL’s), and permissible exposure limits (PEL’s). This involves performing an industrial hygiene (IH) survey which includes a thorough review of each welding process and personnel air exposure monitoring. This information is compared to the regulatory and other industrial recommended levels such as the American Conference of Government Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) Threshold Limit Values (TLV’s). In many cases, respiratory protection for workers may be required by OSHA until employers can demonstrate that the proper ventilation and engineering controls are in place to meet the applicable OSHA PELs and standard requirements.

For more detailed information on welding fume exposure, regulatory requirements, and industrial hygiene surveys for welding operations at your facilities, please contact your Gallagher Bassett Loss Control Consultant.

The information contained in this report was obtained from sources which, to the best of the writer’s knowledge, are authentic and reliable. Gallagher Bassett Services, Inc. makes no guarantee of results, and assumes no liability in connection with either the information herein contained, or the safety suggestions herein made. Moreover, it cannot be assumed that every acceptable safety procedure is contained herein or that abnormal or unusual circumstances may not warrant or require further or additional procedures.