As many welders know, one of the most important aspects of the job is to protect themselves from weld fumes and the toxicity associated with these externalities. To avoid health risks, weld fume exposure levels should be checked periodically to be certain that the levels fall within Occupational Safety and Health Standards Association’s (OSHA) acceptable exposure limits and the American Conference of Government Industrial Hygienists’ (ACGIH) threshold limit values.
While the amount of audits depends on the size of the company and the amount of welding, weld fume audits should be done regularly. Even though every welding environment is different, these must be evaluated by a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) to determine the appropriate course of action for fume controls (if any). The CIH will monitor the air in your facility and offer consultation on necessary next steps.
Welding different materials gives off large amounts of heat, light, and gas. This exchange can release hazardous gases and fumes, not visible to the eye. Over the years, studies have found that welding stainless steel can cause occupational asthma. This occupational asthma is not only linked to stainless steel, non-stainless steel welding can actually be more problematic as occupational asthma has been reported without any specific agents determined as the cause.
While the list of health hazards linked to weld fumes is ongoing, many are associated with respiratory issues. Lung and skin cancers are also linked to overexposure of metal fumes, over long periods of time. With eye and skin irritation rounding out the less invasive illnesses related to dangerous weld fumes.
When an audit is performed, the CIH will check for acceptable levels of hexavalent chromium Cr(VI). If an audit shows levels of Cr(VI) higher than OSHA’s Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL), then further action must be taken. While this action varies upon the company size and exposure levels, there are items on the market today that offer preventive maintenance along with long-term improvements in air quality. One product sold by Lincoln Electric is a fume extractor that’s an in-house standalone system used to continuously filter the air, in order to extract welding fumes released during the fabrication process. These extractors can also be modified to force ventilation through the roof or wall fans. Another in-house option is the use of detection panels. These panels are often used with the extraction systems in order to prevent, detect, and suppress fires in the welding and fume extraction equipment.
Outside of installation, individual responsibility is also paramount to keep people safe from weld fumes. It’s important that you know how to protect yourself. Facilities need to have good ventilation, perform air quality tests, and determine if a respirator is necessary for the task. Whether or not your facility is at risk for Cr(VI)exposure, it’s crucial to stay informed about exposure and the risks involved with welding. Proper preventive measures can be substantial in hindering the dangerous health risks associated with the incidental inhalation of weld fumes.