by: Deborah Long
Welders often perform their work in confined spaces, with a high risk of health issues from over-exposure to harmful substances in fumes and gas by-products. This risk can be mitigated by taking certain precautions, as well as utilizing fume extraction methods. Some shops are doing their part by renovating and improving ventilation; but ultimately, it’s up to you to be informed, be aware, and be safe.
Prevention is the best measure to avoid the harmful effects of welding fumes (“smoke”), which can range from irritation of the eyes, skin, and respiratory system to more severe complications. The possibility of more serious health effects exists when highly toxic materials are involved.
Here are some things you can do to help keep welding fumes at bay:
Be Informed – There are different types of personal protective equipment (PPE) depending on the kind of welding job. Learn as much as you can through instructional training on when and what type of PPE is needed for what you do, how to use it properly, and how to maintain it to get maximum benefit.
Be Aware – It’s important to read the shop-provided material safety data sheets (MSDS), as well as OSHA’s fact sheet1 on “Controlling Hazardous Fume and Gases during Welding,” to fully understand your on-the-job chemical exposure to welding consumable products. It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with recommended exposure limits, per standards set by OSHA and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists.
Be Safe – The easiest way to optimize safety is to simply turn your body away from welding fumes. You can also keep fume hoods, fume extractor guns, and vacuum nozzles close to the plume source to remove the maximum amount of fumes and gases. And if using a portable or flexible exhaust system, position it so that fumes and gases are drawn away from you.
Advances in fume extraction
Fume extraction equipment is used to capture and remove the smoke and welding fume particulates (dust) produced during the welding process. This is actually a growing industry, with the increase in mandatory health and safety workplace regulations globally, as well the rising awareness among welding operators about various health concerns.
The mobile unit is most popular and cost-effective, with the advantage of capturing welding fumes at the source while requiring little space. Stationary units are also widely used in larger welding shops with the budget to install ducted extraction systems.
Welding torch technology, itself, has advanced over the years to capture more harmful weld fumes at the source. We now have welding torches with built-in nozzles for fume extraction connected to a high vacuum extraction unit. The main advantage over traditional systems is that the extraction is always turned as long as you are welding, with no need to keep repositioning the extraction hood.
Engineering has come a long way in developing controls and best work practices around welding. Below are some of the basics ones:
1. Substitute hazardous materials for less hazardous materials. Whenever possible, use cadmium-free silver solders, and asbestos-free electrodes, gloves, and hot pads.
2. Ensure proper ventilation to remove harmful fumes and gases. Ventilated work benches or hoods provide local exhaust ventilation, efficiently and effectively removing fumes and gases at their source.
3. Clean and maintain ventilation systems on a regular basis.
4. Protect other people in the work area from welding fumes and gas with shielding material or barriers. Totally closing off the welding area is ideal.
5. Eliminate hazards, if possible, by modifying the process or following safe work practices. For example, you can minimize the production of welding fumes by using the lowest acceptable amperage and holding the electrode perpendicular and as close to the work surface and possible.
You can find more free health and safety information here.