All welding processes produce hazardous gases and can also produce fumes. Fumes are formed when a metal is heated above its boiling point and the vapours produced condense into very fine particles that can stay in the vapour or gases created. The particles created are very small (1/50th the width of a human hair), the fumes may be visible or may not.
Fumes enter your body through the air you breathe, different fumes affect the body in different ways. Some milder fumes when inhaled can be rid from the body naturally without lasting effects while others are extremely toxic. Iron oxides, which are produced during most manual welding processes are relatively non-toxic. Currently known effects are not permanent unless other substances such as tobacco or asbestos have already affected your lungs. The fumes produced during the welding process of metals such as stainless steel may produce serious, long-lasting problems if inhaled. These problems can include cancer and chronic breathing difficulties.
Symptoms of Harmful Exposure
Early symptoms of harmful exposure to most substances produced during welding are similar. These symptoms may include:
- Irritation of the eyes
- Nose irritation
- Skin irritation (“nickel itch”)
- Tight chest or chest pain
Since these symptoms are also common with many other illnesses, it’s important to determine whether they are related to work. If you experience any of these symptoms, report them to your doctor (making sure you tell them what you do for work).
Welding fumes normally don’t cause immediate health problems, but if over the years of working as a welder, you breathe in a combination of gases, vapours, and fumes, it is likely that your health will suffer. The severity of the hazard and quantity of fumes generated by welding can change depending on a number of things. This includes the welding process (incl. Type of metal used), type of shielding gas, voltage, current, polarity, type of electrode, and If the metal if painted or coated (polyurethane-coated steel may lead to exposure x25 greater than deemed safe).
One of the best measures to stay safe is to reduce your exposure to fumes with some of these steps:
- Substitute materials with less hazardous flux materials
- Wear respiratory protection
- Develop administrative controls, such as implementation of work-rest schedules and safe-work practices
- Introduce engineering controls by using enclosures and improving ventilation.