Welding: What Are The Potential Health Risks

Welding technologies are becoming more and more advanced and efficient, but unfortunately the risks to the health of the operators have also increased.

The profession of welder exposes the operator to a series of problems and risks, connected in particular with the specific activity carried out. In Italy alone it has been calculated that there are about one million people who manufacture metal products, equipment or machines, and have to deal with welding processes every day.
The estimates, however, do not take into account all those who weld as a hobby, such as DIY enthusiasts or those who are used to personally providing for home maintenance and repair work; even if exposed in a less intensive way than professional welders, in fact, hobbyists are still in contact with the materials and with the fumes produced by the welds.

Often and willingly, indeed, precisely because they do not dedicate themselves to this activity professionally but only as an amateur, they tend to be less equipped as regards the necessary protections to be used; moreover, they are also less informed from the point of view of potential health risks and, consequently, on how to behave in order to implement correct prevention. Furthermore, when operating in domestic environments, the risk of inhaling welding fumes and dust is even more likely to be extended to family members and people who live in the immediate vicinity.

The issues

The evolution of welding technology has led to an exponential increase not only in the dangers, but also in the types of risk, and this above all because of the new methods. We are talking in particular of MIG, MAG and TIG welding that use different types of materials and gases, but let’s proceed in order in order to better understand the real extent of the problem, starting with the specific consequences on health.

Effects can be of two types, chronic or acute, and can lead to respiratory, non-respiratory, or both. Respiratory problems are mainly caused by the fumes and dust that are produced during welding; while the non-respiratory ones are caused by other factors, but for now we will focus on those related to the inhalation of fumes and dusts.

The fumes are produced by the fusion of metals such as aluminum, cadmium, chromium, iron, lead, zinc, tungsten, copper, manganese, titanium, nickel, molybdenum and fluorides; the coated electrode method is the one that produces the greatest emission of fumes, and since the best -selling inverter welders (here are the best models ) are the electrode ones, the associated risks affect a greater number of operators, both professional and amateur .

The powders, on the other hand, are mainly derived from modern continuous wire welding, therefore of the TIG-MIG-MAG type, especially when they are performed with the aid of rods of filler material. Since these welding techniques are more recent and also more complex, however, the percentage of people exposed is lower as they are concentrated almost exclusively in the range of professional welders.

Metal fume fever

The acute respiratory effects are mainly represented by the so-called metal fume fever, the symptoms of which begin to appear 4 or 8 hours after exposure and are similar to those of a normal flu syndrome.

The further acute risk associated with inhalation of welding fumes, but of a more serious nature, is a decrease in respiratory functions, in particular lung volumes, maximum expiratory flows and carbon monoxide transfer.

As for the chronic respiratory effects, however, the fumes can cause respiratory infections, asthma, pneumoconiosis and pulmonary fibrosis, i.e. the appearance of small nodules in the pulmonary alveoli, due to the accumulation of metal oxides produced by at least 15 years of exposure to fumes. of welding, chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and, in severe cases, lung cancer.

The other types of problems

Non-respiratory effects, on the other hand, can be caused by exposure to electricity and electromagnetic fields, to the light generated by the electric arc, to the heat, noise and vibrations generated during work, to the occasional dejection of slag and molten metal, to decomposition of particular chemical products, such as degreasers, lubricants, oils and paints, or more simply to the habit of acquiring incorrect work postures or being negligent with regard to the application of safety standards relating to protective equipment.

The most common acute non-respiratory effects, therefore, are burns and electrocutions due to heat and electricity, UV photo-dermatitis on unprotected skin, systemic inflammation and photo-keratoconjunctivitis caused by exposure to the UV spectrum of the light generated by ‘ voltaic arc. The areas most affected by these problems are the eyes and skin, especially if they are not adequately protected.

Chronic non-respiratory effects, on the other hand, are far more dangerous as they can affect virtually any body system, from the musculoskeletal system to the reproductive one, not to mention the nervous, lymphatic or cardio-circulatory system. Furthermore, their greater danger is mainly due to the fact that the symptoms often arise only after decades of exposure to the causes.

Manganese, for example, is potentially neurotoxic when inhaled in high concentrations, and together with lead and aluminum it is suspected of even causing psychiatric symptoms in exposed workers. High-alloy steel welders, on the other hand, are particularly subject to a limitation of the daily dose of sperm and its quality, therefore they are more sensitive to the risks concerning the reproductive system.
Vibrations, on the other hand, can cause serious damage to hearing by compromising the ability to perceive above or below certain frequency thresholds, while electromagnetic fields, although they represent a very mild risk for the body, can still lead to to phenomena of irritation of muscle and nerve cells.

Maximum attention at all times

It is therefore advisable to always operate within the safety parameters and using the appropriate protective clothing: overalls, gloves, boots and welder’s helmet, without forgetting a protective mask for the respiratory tract equipped with special anti-particulate filters. Furthermore, it is advisable for professional welders to periodically undergo specific tests with blood and urine samples, aimed at discovering the possible presence in the body of the substances mentioned in the article, in order to implement a minimum of prevention.

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