In 2019, new research was released which reclassified welding fume as a human carcinogen. As a result, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) announced that there is no safe level of exposure to this hazard. The agency also stated that it would no longer accept any welding without suitable control measures in place.
To ensure that all employers are meeting the new standards and accounting for this hazard, the HSE has increased inspection of welding work.
John Rowe, Head of Manufacturing at the HSE said:
“Employers and workers should know the risk, plan their work and use the right controls when welding activity is carried out. If they are not HSE will use enforcement to bring about improvements.”
This means that if you employ anyone at risk of exposure, you must take steps to ensure that the risk is minimised.
What Are the Legal Duties When it Comes to Fume?
If you employ welders, you have duties under the law. It is a requirement under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 that you must protect workers from the health and safety risks that this work involves. This includes fume.
This makes employers responsible for conducting risk assessments and ensuring adequate risk controls are in place. You must also, of course, provide the right level training so everyone understands the risks involved and what to do to stay safe. A safe working environment and safe tools and equipment must also be in place.
The welders themselves must also know and understand their own legal duties. They must ensure that they and their colleagues are working safely by following the systems and arrangements you have in place. Employees must understand that it is their duty to let you know when problems occur.
In addition to the 1974 Act, welding fume falls under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) 2002. COSHH requires a risk assessment specific to the hazardous substances, such as fume, which includes ensuring exposure levels are not in excess of established limits.
If a new COSHH risk assessment has not been completed, now is the time for employers to step back and reassess the situation.
What are the Health Risks of Welding Fume?
Welding fume is a complex mixture of metallic oxides, silicates and fluorides. These fumes are formed when a metal is heated and its vapours condense into very fine, solid particles. Welding fumes generally contain particles from the electrode and the material being welded.
The risk of welding fume is when it is inhaled.
The consequences of exposure can include:
- Metal fume fever: flu-like symptoms linked to welding and hot work
- Acute pneumonia: Welders are at increased risk of pneumonia, which is sometimes severe or fatal
- Cancer: New evidence has revealed that fume can cause lung cancer, and it may also cause kidney cancer
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): A combination of illness that can result in progressive shortness of breath, chest tightness, wheeze, and incapacitation
- Welders lung: Deposits of metal in the lung, which can worsen COPD.
- Occupational Asthma: Which can result in severe shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, and chest tightness
- Asphyxiation: Welding in confined spaces can lead to death by suffocation from lack of oxygen
In addition, neurological symptoms can also occur through the exposure of manganese present in mild steel welding fume. This occurs when it is absorbed through the skin. And it can cause symptoms like those experienced with Parkinson’s disease.
What Risk Controls Are There for Welding Fume?
There is no known level of safe exposure so elimination of risk must be practised in all environments to eliminate or reduce exposure.
Under the hierarchy of risk controls the steps are to:
Eliminate the risk: Use alternative joining, cutting or surface preparation methods that produce less fume or dust, automate or mechanise the process, or order metal pre-cut.
Reduce the Risk: Use materials or a process that generates less fume, such as using Metal Inert Gas (MIG) welding instead of Manual Metal Arc Welding (MMA) welding.
The use local exhaust ventilation (LEV) systems for indoor work can be used to help remove fume at its source.
Safe Systems of Work: Provide training to understand the hazards of welding fume, ensure safe work practices are followed, and provide health surveillance where necessary.
Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE): When engineering controls by themselves cannot control exposure, adequate and suitable RPE should be provided and used to control risk from residual fume.
Do You Need Local Exhaust Ventilation (LEV)?
For indoor working, local exhaust ventilation (LEV), also called extraction, systems can be effective as a control measure to reduce the amount of welding fume being produced from its source.
LEV works by using an airflow to remove contaminated air from the process for capture by the hood. Types of LEV that you might apply include:
On-torch extraction: The most effective for fume control, but it is only available for MAG and MIG welding. The extraction moves with the gun so it is always near the source.
It is best when used on a flat surface, and not practical when working at height.
Extracted benches and booths: Best for use on small to medium sized articles. The welded item should be placed entirely within the hood to be the most effective.
Movable LEV: Is best for large to extra-large workpieces, or when other methods are not practical. Hoods vary in size, shape, and diameter. To be effective, you must select the correct hood and move it as necessary while you work.
Properly positioned and well-designed LEV systems work extremely effectively. However, if placed incorrectly contaminants will be pulled into the welder’s breathing zone. Therefore, LEV systems must be used properly and follow a regular system of maintenance by anyone who uses them.
What About RPE?
Welders should also apply suitable respiratory protective equipment (RPE) to help reduce exposure. This is particularly true where it is not always reasonably practical to provide a LEV system. Or in cases where the LEV system will not adequately control welding fume alone, particularly if working outdoors.
The Health and Safety Executive gives us the following general guidelines for the use of RPE:
- For welding taking up to an hour – use an FFP3 disposable mask or half mask with P3 filter
- For work taking more than an hour per day – use a powered respirator, with a minimum assigned protection factor of 20 (APF20)
Of course, these requirements will vary based on your own situation, for instance, the type of welding you are doing and the work environment. This should be determined by your risk assessment.
It is important when workers use RPE that they understand how to use it and the requirements. For it to work, RPE has to fit.
The HSE recommends face fit testing is conducted by a competent person. This will give you confidence that the equipment is doing its job. Proof of face fit testing will also be handy to have on hand, if the HSE conducts an inspection.
In addition to having the right fit, welders should understand how to inspect the RPE before using it, how to put it on, and how to maintain it.
What Else Do Welders Need to Know
In addition to these arrangements, there is a variety of further information that welders should know to protect themselves from the hazard of fume. A system of pre-use checks should be in place that are followed every time welding is conducted.
This should include inspecting all welding equipment to ensure it is in full working order, assessing LEV before work begins, and following basic housekeeping regimes.
Welders also understand how to work safely. They need to know how to position themselves and any LEV they are using to reduce the risk of exposure. They must know how to assess each working environment they may weld in and what precautions to take.
It is vital that anyone conducting welding has been provided with adequate training. They must know the risks they face when they weld. They must understand what you have done to protect them and what they can do to protect themselves.