At Forster America our focus is to make each welding job faster, safer and more efficient through the use of our products. However, the health effects of welding exposure are also something that we’re very passionate about. The detrimental long-term health effects of welding exposure are well documented, with studies showing that there are many chronic conditions and deadly diseases that many welders suffer from.
In fact welding has been labeled the most potentially hazardous activity in America.
Of course because of the many hazards involved, there are comprehensive health and safety procedures that must be followed, including the necessity for protective clothing and safety equipment. But perhaps the most dangerous aspect of welding is exposure to the fumes that are produced by molten metal and the gases that are released during the various welding processes.
Studies and Research
One organization that has collated studies and research results is the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) that lists both short-term and long-term effects of exposure to welding fumes. Common short-term effects range from eye, nose, ear, throat and chest irritations to coughing and shortness of breath, bronchitis, pneumonitis (the inflammation of the lungs), encephalopathy (a syndrome that results in brain dysfunction) and nausea. Another short-term effect is known as metal fume fever that has flu-type symptoms that last between 24 and 48 hours.
But some welding fumes are more deadly than others, and the Society warns that work involving metal that contains cadmium can result in death.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is actively involved in studies involving fumes that contain manganese (commonly added to carbon steel to make it strong and hard), and these studies have found that Parkinson’s (or something with the same symptoms) is caused by exposure to manganese fumes.
According to the ASSE, other common long-term health effects of welding exposure include pulmonary infection and heart disease, respiratory illness, lung and throat cancer, stomach problems, kidney disease, and a variety of neurological problems.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has issued a health and safety fact sheet that details many of the welding hazards welders need to be aware of. The American Welding Society (AWS) also has a number of safety and health fact sheets that are more detailed and focused on each of the areas of concern – more than 40 in all.
Some Chronic Long-Term Health Effect of Welding Exposure
Hundreds of research studies have been carried out in an attempt to identify the chronic long-term health effects of welding exposure – there are 554 listed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) US National Library of Medicine alone. Many are specific, relating to one or a number of related conditions or diseases. Others consider solutions that will help welders overcome the dangers so many of them face on a daily basis.
The AFSCME fact sheet is more general, but like the ASSE guidelines, gives general insight into the problem. It warns that welders have an increased risk of developing lung cancer (more so if they are smokers), and are vulnerable to cancer of the urinary tract and larynx. The causes cited are the very large quantities of toxic substances found in welding “smoke” as well as the well known cancer-causing agents found in metal and various other elements, specifically (in alphabetical order):
- Arsenic, which occurs in many minerals and is used to strengthen many copper alloys
- Beryllium, which is often added to strengthen alloys of copper, aluminum, iron, and nickel
- Cadmium, which has historically been added to metals to make them less corrosive – but which is being used less and less due to its known toxicity
- Chromium, which is added to iron and carbon steel to increase the metal’s rust resistance
- Nickel, a hard, ductile metal that is resistant to corrosion
Welders may not develop cancer, but many experience chronic lung problems including asthma, bronchitis, decreased lung capacity, emphysema, pneumonia, as well as pneumoconiosis (a dust-related disease), siderosis (also dust-related but specifically caused by iron oxide dust), and silicosis (which often develops when welders have been exposed to silica).
And it doesn’t even begin to stop there; additional health issues that research has found to relate to welding include skin diseases, heart disease, loss of hearing, chronic gastritis and gastoduodentitis (which causes the stomach to become inflamed), and small intestine and stomach ulcers. Those exposed to nickel and chromium have been found to be especially vulnerable to kidney damage.
Reproductive risks have also been shown to be an issue, with welders displaying an inferior sperm count (and quality) to men working in other jobs. Those welding stainless steel appear to be more at risk.
Ultimately, welders are undoubtedly at risk of developing a number of horrible long-term health effects, but it is also true that if the proper safety procedures are followed, these risks will be dramatically curtailed.
For more information about products to reduce welding fumes check out KemperAmerica.com – their solutions for welding fumes and exhaust help to combat these hazards from full room ventilation to source fume removal.