Why protection against welding fumes is indispensable

Man welding with 9100 FX Air. Image: Blackwoods

Blackwoods national category manager for welding and gas Fred O’Connor informs Safe
to Work
that the reclassification of welding fumes as carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) calls for mining industry action before it’s too late.

In 2017, the International Agency for the Research on Cancer (IARC) reclassified welding fumes from “possibly carcinogenic to humans” to “carcinogenic to humans”. The reclassification includes the risk of ultraviolet radiation from welding processes in causing skin and eye cancer.

While the reclassification has forced many welders and workplaces to rethink their current approach to respiratory protection, it seems that much of Australia’s mining industry has been slow to implement significant changes.

The NSW Resources Regulator found during its recent planned inspections last year that mine operators had not identified or acted upon this reclassification, and were not consistently applying the principles of the hierarchy of controls to manage welding fumes.

The impact of exposure to welding fumes varies, from a worker falling ill immediately to exposure damaging the lungs gradually over a long period of time. What is most concerning however, is prolonged exposure to welding fumes. According to Safe Work Australia, the greater the exposure to the carcinogen, the higher the risk of developing cancer.

While short-term illness such as welding fume fever is considered the primary consequence of welding fume exposure, metal fumes such as nickel, chromium and cadmium (known carcinogens) and molybdenum trioxide and indium tin oxide (classified as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”) can pose long-term health risks.

According to the WA Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety, inhaled welding fumes may also cause chronic inflammation and weakened immune function, possibly increasing the body’s susceptibility to infections or tumours.

“Although isolated exposure to welding fumes may not be of significant concern, there needs to be more done to protect against the potential long-term effects,” Blackwoods national category manager for welding and gas Fred O’Connor tells Safe to Work.

“That’s why we’re focused on educating the market, and our customers, on preventative strategies that provide the necessary protection in their respective applications. The right respiratory equipment combined with having appropriate controls in place, are a fundamental step in the defence against welding fumes.”

 

This first layer of protection is a basic P2 respirator, O’Connor says. This protection can be enhanced with a powered air purifying respirator (PAPR), which helps reduce welding fume exposure to as low a level as reasonably practicable.

“The immediate benefit of wearing a PAPR is improved overall health and reduced fatigue at the end of a shift,” O’Connor adds.

While PAPR welding helmets were traditionally quite expensive, Blackwoods is now able to offer a competitive and versatile range that meets our customers’ requirements from both a cost and performance perspective.

Other protective strategies available to welders include the use of downdraft tables that suck the welding fumes away from the operator. An additional layer of protection in the form of portable welding fume extractors can also be used, which not only further protects the individual welder, but also surrounding personnel.

Finally, company measurement control that regulates welding fumes, including the optimisation of welding process consumables and equipment is critical in protecting their people.

“It’s important you look at the consumable that you’re using. Adopting the use of copper-free wires is a good place to start,” O’Connor says.

“Combining the above strategies will help deliver the right protection. We not only recommend the appropriate safety equipment for work sites, but also engage our technical welding and safety experts who can provide complete solutions to support companies in managing their concerns.

“Our expertise is further complemented by our industry-leading suppliers including 3M (Speedglas), ESAB and Lincoln Electric, which allows us to offer the best protection available for mining workers exposed to welding fumes.”

This article also appears in the Apr-Jun 2019 edition of Safe to Work.