The invisible risks of welding

Ensure healthy living tomorrow with safe welding practices today

Practical Welding Today July/August 2007
July 10, 2007
By: Michael Ladd

Welders who ignore healthy work practices today are putting their long-term health in jeopardy. Being aware of some of the less obvious health hazards can help to ensure healthy living later in life.

Welding Images

The world is full of 60-year-olds who regret not protecting their health when they were younger. And so it is with welders. It's well-documented that many long-term health problems associated with the profession are preventable. But, because the causes and incremental effects can be invisible, literally, they tend to be ignored, that is until welders grow older and the impact of that disregard can be ignored no longer.

It turns out those fumes inhaled through the years may cause serious medical complications. Those noises that didn't seem so loud actually were, potentially destroying your ability to hear. The parts that didn't seem so heavy may trigger shoulder problems. The constant kneeling can lead to knee troubles. All too often seemingly insignificant job-related activities can compound and lead to illness in later years. The good news is you can reduce the risk of these ailments significantly by forcing yourself to make a few simple changes to your daily routine.

Avoid Gases and Fumes

Sometimes you receive specific warning signs after inhaling gases and fumes. For example, if you breathe enough zinc fumes while welding on galvanized metal, you later may experience metal fume fever. Symptoms include night sweats, chills, and stomach pains. Or you may exhibit shortness of breath or headaches after breathing certain fumes.

However, you might inhale many gases and fumes over the span of your career that do not provide any obvious warnings. Even though air testing may determine these fume exposures are within current regulatory occupational limits, those limits are simply a guideline to help benchmark the airborne concentration. They should not be considered an absolute safe level of exposure.

Welding fumes are a combination of various metals. For instance, mild steel is mostly iron, but it also contains manganese, which has received a great deal of attention recently in terms of its effect on health. Stainless steel also contains iron, as well as nickel and chromium. Each compound may have different health effects.

The nose typically filters and collects much of the smoke, fumes, and grinding dust welding machines create. But some welding fume particles are very small in size and can pass through the nose, the sinus cavity, down the throat, and into the lungs. Most people never even notice an irritation. After years of inhaling welding fumes, you begin to exhibit signs. Symptoms can be as benign as breathing heavily after walking up a flight of steps, but the underlying problems can be much more severe.

Being attentive to conditions and taking simple, preventive measures can greatly reduce the risks presented by gases and fumes. Here are some steps you can take to protect yourself:

  • Keep your face out of the welding fumes.
  • If there is a natural breeze blowing through the building, stand to the side so the breeze pushes the fumes away from your face. Don't block the airflow.
  • Whenever possible, use a cooling fan to blow away fumes when there is no natural breeze in the building. Remember, you cannot be close to a large fan because the air current will remove the shield gas around the arc. Move the fan until you notice a very slight breeze. The breeze will not cool you, but it will help dissipate the smoke and fumes.
  • Weld on clean metal whenever possible. Grind away coatings and paints from the area to be welded because they burn up and smolder, creating offensive odors and gases.
  • Use local exhaust ventilation systems properly. Position the hood close to the weld, and set up your workstation to allow the ventilation controls to do the job they were intended to do.
  • If you cannot use a cooling fan or exhaust ventilation system to capture the fumes, wear a respirator to protect your lungs.

Protect Your Hearing

As odd as it sounds, fumes you breathe actually may harm your hearing. Multiple health studies show a strong correlation between certain chemicals and audio-nerve damage. For example, breathing high levels of carbon monoxide gas affects how much oxygen gets into the blood. If the oxygen level in the blood supply to auditory nerve cells is lowered, they become stressed, posing a higher risk for damage.

The more obvious threat to hearing is the noise welding generates. Noise is a health hazard that many welders ignore. The same people who might wear earplugs or earmuffs when grinding metal will shun that protection when welding, simply because it doesn't seem loud—at least not to the point of being painful. However, welding is loud enough to cause minor nerve cell damage, and minor damage on a daily basis adds up over the years.

Even moderately loud noise, such as that produced by welding, leaves auditory nerve cells affected permanently. Damaged cells do not mend, and new ones don't grow. The long-term result is loss of hearing. To prevent auditory nerve damage now, wear ear protection. It's never too late to start, but like saving money, the younger you are when you begin, the better off you'll be later on.

Use Your Head, Not Your Back

Years of repetitive kneeling or lifting heavy parts can take their toll on the body. Chronically bad backs, knee joints, and shoulders are common ailments among aging welders.

When you're young, it might seem easier and faster to work in an uncomfortable position instead of moving the part to a table and working at a comfortable height. Even if you decide to move the part, it might seem easier to lift a heavy object to a bench manually than to use a mechanical hoist.

Both actions are akin to winning the battle, but losing the war. You might save some time, and you might not feel any pain from the squatting or the lifting, but over time, all of that kneeling and hauling can catch up with you. Be smart about your working situation. Use lifts, get help from others to move heavy pieces, don't stay in one position too long, and try to be as comfortable as possible as much as possible. This is not a sign of weakness. It's a simple acknowledgment that your health in the future is shaped by the actions you take today.

Remember, what doesn't hurt you today may harm you tomorrow.

Michael Ladd, CIH, CSP, is a risk control consultant for CNA, where he coordinates industrial hygiene services.

The purpose of this article is to provide general information, rather than advice or opinion. It is accurate to the best of the author's knowledge as of the date of the publication. Accordingly, this article should not be viewed as a substitute for the guidance and recommendations of a retained professional. In addition, CNA does not endorse any coverages, systems, processes, or protocols addressed herein unless they are produced or created by CNA.

CNA is a service mark registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Copyright© 2007 CNA. All rights reserved.

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Practical Welding Today

Practical Welding Today

Practical Welding Today was created to fill a void in the industry for hands-on information, real-world applications, and down-to-earth advice for welders. No other welding magazine fills the need for this kind of practical information.

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