The global reclassification of welding fume as “carcinogenic to humans” in 2017 confirmed what many had suspected for a long time and led to SafeWork Australia publishing a new Code of Practice on Welding Processes. Disappointingly, the 2020 Welding Fume and Respiratory Protection Survey1 showed that only 11% of workplaces had engaged an Occupational Hygienist for advice. It’s clear that we have a long way to go to protect our welders.
As far back as 1980, welders were thought to have a 30 to 40% increased risk of lung cancer compared to the general population. We now know for certain that exposure to welding fume can cause lung cancer and is associated with kidney and bladder cancer whilst the ultraviolet radiation from welding can cause melanoma.
According to Safe Work Australia, the greater the exposure to the carcinogen over a prolonged period of time, the higher the risk of developing cancer. Even short-term exposure may result in eye, nose and throat irritation, dizziness and nausea or metal fume fever.
According to the Cancer Council2, the cancer risk from welding fumes depends on many factors including:
The Cancer Council also highlights the dangers of the UV radiation generated by welding which they claim can cause eye melanoma, ‘welder’s flash’ or ‘arc eye’ (painful inflammation of the cornea), cataracts (clouding on the lens of the eye), and burns to exposed skin. UV radiation effects depend on:
Air monitoring, by an experienced Occupational Hygienist, determines whether an exposure standard is being exceeded. Under the OHS Regulations, an initial exploratory exposure monitoring exercise may be needed to reach an accurate judgement about the risk to health. The results will then influence the assessment of how well control measures for the welding fume are working and the type of additional controls that may be required.
The current Safe Work Australia Exposure Standard for welding fume in the breathing zone (inside a welder’s helmet when a helmet is worn) must not exceed 5 mg/m3 when calculated over an 8-hour working day. Specific components of welding such as chromium VI (0.05 mg/m3) have more stringent exposure standards. Where there is uncertainty in workers exposure Atmospheric Monitoring by an Occupational Hygienist is recommended to determine controls required to ensure workers are not exposed above the exposure standard and that ensure risk is reduced as far as reasonable practicable.
According to Breathe Freely Australia3, a program of the Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists, Air Monitoring can be used to:
Breathe Freely Australia also highlight that it is wise to use Air Monitoring when:
Protection of workers directly involved in welding operations should be through the use of PPE with the appropriate level of UV protection. For others their exposure should be limited through:
SafeWork Australia revised its Welding processes Code of Practice in 2020 with some minor adjustments and remains a good source of reference for welding health and safety.
In general the following approach to welding safety should be followed:
Welders deserve to feel safe at work and you have a responsibility to ensure that you keep their work environment free of risk. In 2014 The Age4 reported on an Australian first which linked a Melbourne man’s deadly lung tumour to toxic welding fumes. He won WorkCover compensation after a court ruled that working as a welder had raised his risk of contracting lung cancer. This was the first time in Australia that compensation had been awarded due to a link between lung cancer and welding fumes but it probably won’t be the last.
1 2020 Welding Fume Survey