Electric arc welding (fumes and vapours)

Background

The two most common types of welding are: 

  • The electric arc welding of metal using a flux-coated electrode (manual metal arc welding) MMAW
  • The electric arc welding of metal using a gas-shielded wire electrode (gas metal arc welding) GMAW

Hazards

Welding fumes and vapours are a complex mixture of metallic oxides, silicates and fluorides. Fumes and vapours are formed when a metal is heated above its boiling point and its vapours condense into very fine particles, which are able to enter the body through inhalation causing asphyxiation and toxicity. Particles in the welder's breathing zone may remain in the air for some hours if they are not removed by ventilation.

The composition of the fumes and vapours vary depending on the materials being welded. Some substances found in welding fume and vapour are Lead, Cadmium, Manganese, Zinc, Iron, Chromium and Nickel.

Add coatings to the material and substances such as Hydrogen Cyanide, Formaldehyde, Isocyanate, Carbon Dioxide, Carbon Monoxide etc. may be formed.

Risk

Welding fumes and vapours have long been considered cancer causing agents.

Many cases of acute poisoning due to exposure to one or more welding fume or vapour have been documented. 

Recent medical research is now connecting exposure to welding fume and vapour, and effects they have on the nervous system.  

Of concern is the syndromes associated with toxic damage to the nervous system and brain disorders (Alzheimer and Parkinson's), and occupational exposure of welders to these fumes and vapours.

Evidence supports unprotected welding leads to neurological damage.

Risk Controls

Employers must have a Safe Work Method Statement (SWMS) advising their workers of the hazards and risks associated with their work in a contaminated atmosphere, and the control measures that are to be in place to remove or control the risk.

Consideration prior to welding would be, with reference to the hierarchy of controls:

  • Ventilation
  • The fumes and vapours created by the welding process
  • Confined space
  • Monitoring of the atmosphere
  • Health surveillance
  • Education and training
  • First aid

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is inherent in the welding process, in the form of the welding helmet.

When considering the selection of a welding helmet, auto-darkening lenses with positive air pressure must be selected.

Other considerations:

It is mandatory under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 for employers to monitor the health of their workers. 

Welders are advised to notify their doctor of their occupation when seeking treatment or having check-ups to ensure proper care and advice is given.

Steve Rocco V2 2016

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