welder in mask welding, with blue sparks coming off object

Occupational Health Hazards in the Welding Industry 

Welders might be at risk for certain health hazards. Luckily, there are ways to mitigate them.

When welding, either as a full-time job or every once in a while as part of another occupation, workers can be exposed to multiple hazards that present serious concerns. In the past, OH&S has addressed the need for welder PPE, like hearing protection and eye protection, to protect workers from these hazards.  

But welders are exposed to metals and chemicals that pose additional risks. These workers can suffer a range of health effects, from more mild effects such as throat irritation or occupational asthma to more severe effects, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, commonly known as COPD. Understanding what health risks welders may face is the first step to preventing them.  

Welder’s Anthrax  

Identified just last year, welder’s anthrax is “pneumonia in a metalworker caused by bacteria within the B. cereus group that produces anthrax toxin,” as defined by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Although it is rare, it can cause serious problems.  

One 2022 study found that from 1994 to 2020, six welders and one metalworker had welder’s anthrax. They all shared some commonalities: “abnormal chest radiographs,” pneumonia and) hospitalization. If the person survived, they were moved to the intensive care unit. 

Over 50 percent of people experienced “fever or chills,” a hard time breathing (known as dyspnea) and blood when coughing (known as hemoptysis). Broad-spectrum antibiotic treatment was given to everyone, and raxibacumab, a treatment used for inhalational anthrax caused by a specific type of bacteria, was only given to one. Of the seven, only two survived, including the person who was given raxibacumab.  

Although data on work and worker demographics were limited, it is known that of the two people who were diagnosed in 2020, one person worked on A36 mil carbon steel on an oil tank roof using a shielded metal arc welding process. The other worked on low-carbon mild steel in a wood fabrication shop using Metal Inert Gas. 

The seven cases' demographics included six men and one woman, six people who were welders and one who was a metalworker, a median age of 39 and four people who worked in Texas and three in Louisiana.  

So how can employers protect welders from this rare but serious disease? The hierarchy of controls.  

As always with the hierarchy of controls, we’ll start at the top. Elimination and substitution controls recommended by NIOSH include “using a less toxic welding type or consumable” and “ensuring that welding surfaces are free of any coatings, dirt, and dust that may lead to potentially toxic exposures.”  

Next is engineering controls. To move fumes from the area, utilize “general and local exhaust ventilation,” even when welders are working outside.  

Under the administrative controls, OSHA recommends the following:  

  • “Workplaces should be routinely cleaned with a vacuum equipped with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter or wet cleaning methods.  
  • Compressed air and dry sweeping or brushing should not be used.  
  • Dust control programs in outdoor workplaces and near workplaces open to the outdoors can minimize dirt and dust exposure, and activities in the immediate vicinity should be limited to help minimize disturbing dry dust.  
  • In surrounding areas, adding water, hydroscopic compounds or surfactants to roadways and surfaces that are heavily traveled can help control dirt and dust exposures. However, these substances should not be applied in the immediate area where welding occurs as this may cause an electrocution hazard.”  

Finally, at the bottom of the hierarchy of controls, PPE should be considered. There is a variety of PPE that welders can use to protect themselves, like respirators, welding helmets, coveralls, foot protection, hearing protection and more. 

Cancer  

The process of welding includes exposure to fumes and ultraviolet radiation, both of which were categorized as a Group 1 carcinogen in 2017 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). What does this mean? In IARC’s words: “There is enough evidence to conclude that it can cause cancer in humans.”  

One study found that 10.8 percent of the studied 12,845 male welders from 1991-2010 had at least one form of cancer. The study also looked at 87,460 occasional welders, or those who “potentially or occasionally” weld as part of a job, and calculated that about 10.2 percent of these workers were also diagnosed with cancer. 

Overall, the statistics reveal that in this study, a higher ratio of welders was diagnosed with cancer than occasional welders. This idea remains consistent when looking at specific cancers themselves.  

Of the welders, 265 were diagnosed with lung cancer compared to 1,625 occasional welders. Comparing these numbers to the total number of each class of welders in the study, 12,845 welders and 87,460 occasional welders, shows that 2.1 percent of welders experienced lung cancer while only 1.9 percent of occasional welders did.  

Mesothelioma affected 0.12 percent of welders and 0.05 percent of occasional welders; stomach cancer affected 0.35 percent of welders and 0.26 percent of occasional welders; and bladder cancer affected 0.78 percent of welders and 0.59 percent of occasional welders, the study shows.  

Although a solid conclusion cannot be established from just one study, there are still actions employers can take to protect workers who weld.  

For fume exposure, OSHA has a few recommendations. Besides keeping surfaces clean, welders can also use ventilation to keep themselves safe. Use tools like a vacuum nozzle or portable exhaust system to move fumes from the area the welder is working in, OSHA said. 

Looking at the hierarchy of controls, substitution and PPE (like respiratory PPE) are also great ways to protect welders from fumes.  

Metal Fume Fever  

Metal fume fever (MMF) is an illness that causes flu-like symptoms, most often in welders. A 2009 publication estimates that every year, there are about 1,500 to 2,500 MFF cases across the country.  

Metal fume fever can be caused by exposure to welding fumes. There are a variety of metals in the fumes that can cause MFF, such as beryllium, copper, manganese and zinc.  

In a case review published in 2012, researchers reviewed 85 calls about MFF placed to the Victorian Poisons Information Centre at a Victoria, Australia hospital from June 2005 to December 2010. “All of the callers had inhaled fumes while welding metal,” the case review said. The top three metals reported were zinc (31 percent), steel (18 percent) and iron (14 percent), with 23 percent of people not clarifying a metal. 

The case review also collected data on symptoms, which can set in around 48 hours post-exposure, reported on the calls. Sixty percent of calls involved a fever. Chills (29 percent), a headache (27 percent) and muscle aches (22 percent) were also frequently reported symptoms. Other symptoms can include joint stiffness and feeling sick. Because symptoms appear similar to the flu, MFF can be diagnosed incorrectly.  

Interestingly enough, almost one in four reported that symptoms became apparent on Monday. Why is that? The study explains: “Metal fume fever is most likely to present on Monday due to loss of tolerance over the weekend in occupational welders.” (MFF is also sometimes called Monday morning fever.)  

So how can the risks of MFF be mitigated? The case review points to two concepts: “workplace safety and education.” Welders and medical professionals should be familiar with the disease, making it easier to diagnose and treat.  

In addition to education, similar actions to reduce the risk of welder’s anthrax and cancer can also be used. For example, the 2009 publication lists “avoidance of direct contact with potentially toxic fumes, improved engineering controls (exhaust ventilation systems) [and] personal protective equipment (respirators)” to help workers avoid getting MFF.  

Conclusion  

Although working around certain metals and chemicals can create health concerns for welders, employers can do something about it. From following the hierarchy of controls to using ventilation, employers have options. Remember, it’s never too early to protect your workers.

This article originally appeared in the March 1, 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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