One of Australia’s largest providers of industrial and safety supplies, Blackwoods, shares how the business is protecting workers from the dangers of welding fumes.
Take a look at this list: cancer (lung, larynx and urinary tract), bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma, emphysema, skin disease, and damage to the central nervous system and kidneys. These are some of the health issues that can arise if someone is exposed to welding fumes.
While welding is a task performed across many industries and can be inadvertently overlooked, the reality and gravity of these health issues was underlined in 2017 when the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), re-classified all welding fumes generated from welding as “carcinogenic to humans”. Put simply, welding can be a hazardous occupation if you are not suitably protected, and appropriate safety practices are not adhered to. An inherent challenge with the above is that some of these health issues may not arise for many, many years.
In Australia, there are exposure standards to contaminants. The standard for general welding fumes, which is measured inside the welder’s helmet when worn (“breathing zone”), must not exceed 5mg/m3 using a Time Weighted Average (TWA) of eight hours per day over a five-day working week. This excludes other fume types such as chromium and copper which are lower.
According to Blackwoods Technical Specialist Team Leader, Welding, Gas and Abrasives, Dino Paris, the understanding of safe practices and obligations associated with welding fumes continues to improve in Australia.
“Over the last 24 months alone, we’ve seen a significant lift in enquiries from safety advisors, production managers, workshop leaders and the like on Welding PAPR (Powered Air Purifying Respirators), welding fume controlling systems as well as the associated PPE,” Paris said.
In support of these enquiries, many customers enlist the involvement of the combined Blackwoods technical safety and welding, gas and abrasives teams for industry best practice guidance. Through onsite assessments our team of experts enable customers to conduct hygiene assessments that provide them with peace of mind, or an applicable and practical fit for purpose solution.
When providing onsite assessments, the five-tier Hierarchy of Controls
methodology is applied:
1. Elimination: Remove the hazard (fumes)
2. Substitution: Replace the hazard
3. Engineering controls: Isolate the hazard by maintaining designating (welding)
areas and minimise or remove fumes through controls
4. Administrative: Change the process, consider shift rotations and position
workers to minimise or remove exposure to fumes
5. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Use appropriate protective clothing and
The controls are listed in order from the most to the least effective. In almost all
situations, a combination of these controls is needed to best protect welders.
The Blackwoods team of technical specialists are available to assist workplaces in
undertaking a hygiene assessment for peace of mind, or to assist in identifying a
tailored solution to keep welders safe.
Minimising worker exposure with engineered controls
Welding fume is comprised of solid particulate and gases and are hazardous. In fact, it can lead to serious ailments, and/or death. Every employer needs to be thoroughly aware of the hazard and act accordingly. That means every worker who may be exposed to welding fume in the workplace needs to take appropriate safety measures. As part of safe practice, workers must wear the appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) which includes welding helmets, gloves, jackets, caps, and footwear.
Also, it is important to understand the importance of Weld Fume Management Controls, which include optimisation, isolation, ventilation/extraction, and safe work practices. These controls can protect workers, the workshop and minimise risks to the employer at a time when welding has become an increasing focus for Workplace Safety authorities.
Lincoln Electric offers a range of extraction options that can isolate workers from hazardous fumes. These include portable and stationary fume extractors, extraction arms with centralised collectors, and fume extraction welding guns that can help capture and remove fumes at their source, well before they reach a welder’s breathing zone.
“It is often said that welding fume extraction is a non-productive investment. That is not true; it does have a positive effect on the productivity and comfort of the welder. When you create a safe workplace, you lift the image of the company both internally and externally. But more importantly, this results in more motivated employees, better efficiency and a higher quality of the welding job,” says Charles Elbayeh, National Product Manager – Equipment, Lincoln Electric Company (Australia).
Materials being welded, consumables used and even the welding process are key factors to be considered when selecting the right system.
Respiratory protection for welding fume exposure
There are more than 80 different types of welding and associated processes. That means there is a lot for any welder, from a trainee to an expert to take in. Unfortunately, during any of these 80-plus activities, welders can also take in toxic fumes if unprotected.
With welding fume classified as a “carcinogenic to humans” by the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer), the welding industry continues to undergo significant safety changes. At the core of any change is the knowledge that all welding processes are subject to risk assessment, and in the case of welding fume, the hierarchy of controls must be applied.
In reference to PPE, every employer should consider the use of auto-darkening welding helmets that have integrated Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPR). Welding helmets with PAPR are mandatory in many Australian businesses.
Statistically they tell a story that cannot be overlooked: They have a Required Minimum Protection Factor (RMPF) of 50, which means they supply breathing air which is at least 50 times cleaner than the air the welder would be breathing if unprotected. By comparison,
disposable half-face style respirators have a RMPF of 10 if properly fitted and worn.
Powered Air Purifying Respirators are versatile. They allow the welder unrestricted movement, offer clear vision, comfort, eye and face protection, and of course, respiratory protection. They are valuable in a variety of environments where welders may work with such materials as aluminium, stainless steel, galvanised steel and applications including MMA, GMAW, FCAW, SAW and TIG.
“In relation to the hierarchy of controls, PPE is often referred to as the last resort. When it comes to welding, suitable PPE must always be worn. Even if a welder is operating within the workplace exposure standard for welding fume, they can still inhale up to 11 grams of fume every year. 11 grams of a substance with a direct link between human exposure and the development of cancer,” says David Chippendale, Director of Marketing and Sales AWS.