Welding fumes and metalworking fluids pose several occupational safety risks that those who work for fabricated metal businesses must be aware of. Managers of these businesses must also ensure that all work is sufficiently planned, and that suitable control measures are in place to protect the health of its workers.
In this article, we have answered some frequently asked questions about welding fumes and metalworking fluids and the risks associated with them:
Welding is a common process used in fabricated metal product manufacturing. During the welding process, a piece of metal is heated to a temperature above its melting point, causing parts of it to evaporate and condense into fumes. These fumes are formed of very fine particles that can remain suspended in the air for a long time.
The specific particles present in a welding fume can vary depending on the metals being worked on and any coatings or residues present. For example, welding iron or steel results predominantly in the production of iron oxide fumes.
Welding fumes can have a wide range of acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) effects.
Gases, such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide, are produced when welding. Exposure to these gases is dangerous, as carbon monoxide can cause asphyxiation by affecting the body’s ability to carry oxygen in the blood, and nitrogen dioxide can irritate the eyes, nose and throat upon contact. These gases are particularly dangerous when working in a confined space, as they can build up quickly and create an oxygen-deficient environment.
The most common long-term health risk associated with exposure to welding fumes is occupational lung disease, including lung cancer, but it can also lead to the development of occupational asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
Health and safety law requires employers to put control measures in place to protect workers from the risks posed by welding fumes. Any risk control measures must be considered in this order:
Avoiding or reducing exposure involves considering whether an alternative preparation method that produces fewer fumes can be used or if the welding task can be carried out differently by, for example, automating it or using different materials and processes.
If a welding task cannot be avoided, then a local exhaust ventilation (LEV) system should be used if possible. This will help to remove the welding fume from an area and, in turn, reduce the extent to which a worker is exposed to it. It is important to be aware that local exhaust ventilation is different to general ventilation, and using the latter around welding fumes will cause them to spread throughout a workplace.
In situations where it is not possible to use a local exhaust ventilation system, or if there is still a significant risk of exposure with a system in place, suitable respiratory protective equipment (RPE) must be provided. The specific kind of equipment used will vary depending on the task and its duration, so suitable guidance should be obtained to ensure that the RPE used is appropriate.
Metalworking fluids are used during the creation of fabricated metal products for many reasons, including to provide lubrication and cooling, to carry away debris and to improve performance. They are typically applied by continuous jet, spray or hand dispenser, and often referred to as:
Metalworking fluids are hazardous substances that can affect those working with them in several ways. They can be inhaled by those working around them, come in contact with skin if suitable personal protective equipment is not used and enter the body through cuts, abrasions or the mouth.
Exposure to metalworking fluids can result in several health effects, including skin disorders such as dermatitis and respiratory conditions that include work-related asthma, bronchitis and occupational hypersensitivity pneumonitis. This is the case because the oils and metal debris found in metalworking fluids can irritate the skin and respiratory tract. Also, harmful bacteria and fungi can grow in fluid systems that contain water or water-mixes.
Similarly to welding fumes, health and safety law requires employers to put measures in place to protect their workers from the dangers posed by metalworking fluids. The extent and form of these measures will depend on the specific fluids and processes used but may include installing splash guards, regulating the volume and rate of the fluid’s delivery to minimise vapour production and providing suitable personal protective equipment (PPE) to prevent skin contact.
There are also several measures that workers can take to protect themselves from the risks posed by metalworking fluids, including eating and drinking in designated areas away from any fluids, washing their hands thoroughly before and after working with them and regularly changing dirty overalls.
Health surveillance is a process in which an employer regularly checks the health of its employees, and is required if indicated in a risk assessment. This process will vary depending on the specific risks that the worker is exposed to, and is important to protect workers’ health because it helps to spot health changes and signs of disease early.
Asthma health surveillance should be provided for workers who are regularly exposed to welding fumes that include asthmagens (substances that can cause asthma), such as those generated when welding stainless steel. It may also be useful to maintain health records for everyone who works around all forms of welding fume regularly because of its carcinogenic nature. Also, regular skin and breathing inspections should be carried out on those who work with metalworking fluids.
To protect metalworkers from harm, they must receive training that makes them aware of the dangers associated with welding fumes and/or metalworking fluids. This is especially important for those who are new to metalworking.
This training should also cover topics such as how workers can safely carry out their duties, how to use any risk control measures in place and how to identify any health problems that they may experience.