Solution Summary: Selecting Proper Welding Processes to Reduce Fume Exposure
- Manganese is a metallic element that is present in most welding fume samples. Although a very small amount is required for normal bodily function, excessive exposure can cause serious health problems. Welders exposed over long periods of time can show symptoms of manganism (also called “parkinsonism”), a degenerative brain disease that causes tremors, impaired speech and movement, muscle spasms, mood disturbances and hallucinations. The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists’ (ACGIH) Threshold Limit Value (TLV) for manganese is .02 mg/m3.
- Hexavalent chromium is usually found in fumes when welding, cutting, or burning stainless steel, high chrome galvanized steel, and other chrome-containing metals. It can cause skin, throat, nose, and lung irritation and sores. It is also very strongly associated with lung cancer and other cancers of the throat or nasal passages. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Recommended Exposure Limit (REL) for hexavalent chromium is 0.2 ug/m3. However, it’s important to remember that there is no safe level of a cancer-causing substance.
- Lead can also be present in welding fumes if the base metal has a lead-containing paint or coating. Exposure to lead can cause a wide variety of health effects in almost every part of the body, but the most disturbing effects are neurological, affecting the brain, spine, and nerves. They include memory loss, headache, irritability, cognitive dysfunction, and brain damage. Kidney damage, joint pain, digestive issues, miscarriage, and infertility can also result. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) for lead is 50 ug/m3.
- There are many other harmful substances in welding fumes, including nickel, zinc, cadmium, beryllium, and others. Each one has the potential to cause significant health issues. In addition to the specific diseases mentioned above, exposure to any of these substances can also cause allergic sensitization. Once you are sensitized, the only way to prevent an allergic reaction is by avoiding the substance. Although some people can be exposed to a chemical hundreds of times without a reaction, other people may be sensitized the first time they are exposed. There is currently no way to predict who will become sensitized or when.
How Risks are Reduced:
Selecting a welding process that generates less fumes, along with taking other precautions such as ventilation at the point of operation and respiratory protection, decreases the likelihood that you will develop an illness associated with exposure to welding fumes.
Although some types of work require specific welding processes, you can often substitute one type of welding for another. If you are using a process that generates a large amount of fumes like Shielded Metal Arc Welding, other types of welding like Metal Inert Gas Welding (MIG) or Flux-cored Arc Welding (FCAW) can often be substituted without sacrificing the quality of the work.
Effects on Productivity:
Although SMAW (or “stick” welding) has low initial costs, it may end up being more expensive per weld when all relevant factors are considered. Stick welders must frequently make multiple passes on the same weld, and will need to take the time to chip or grind the slag left behind. Especially when factoring in healthcare costs due to stick welding’s high fume generation rate, using an alternative welding process is likely to save time, labor, and money.
Sara Brooks, MPH, CPH - CPWR - The Center for Construction Research and Training
Mike McCullion, CSP, ARM - SMACNA - Sheet Metal and Air Condition Contractors' National Association
Mark Van Avery, Welding Assessor/CWI - International Training Institute
A Total Systems Approach to Controlling Welding Fumes
To obtain information, visit Lincoln Electric
Welding - Fumes and Gases
To obtain information, visit Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS)
Welding Fume and Gas Exposure
To obtain information, visit Occupational Health and Safety Online
Controlling Hazardous Fume and Gases during Welding
To obtain information, visit Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)