The welding industry has long fallen under the Health and Safety Executive's wing, given the many inherent dangers in the practice. The dangers are both obvious – anyone working with a naked flame or any excessively hot objects will be well aware of the risks they face – and stealthy. This can include the release of harmful gases, and noise and vibration issues – all of which can become serious problems if not monitored and controlled. But new guidelines released by the HSE advise that a tightening of protocols around industrial welding is in order with immediate effect.
What Has Changed?
This is because new research has confirmed that the fumes from many types of welding, including mild steel welding, can cause lung and, in some cases, kidney cancers. It has been discovered that current health and safety advice does not do enough to protect welders from these fumes, even if the ventilation and working practices are fully compliant.
The research comes from the International Agency for Research on Cancer or IARC, and examined the effects on the human body of molybdenum trioxide and indium tin oxide when they are released due to the heating (melting) effects of welding. The study follows up those conducted in the late 80s, in which the link to illness could not be proven, and is based on over thirty years' worth of statistics and research. This report was compiled by seventeen scientists from over ten different countries, and the data was compelling enough for them to declare that the risk of lung cancer from welding fumes was incontrovertible, while the risk of kidney cancer was not as decisively proven, but still skewed the figures enough for a warning to be issued.
If welding is conducted indoors, a Local Exhaust Ventilation system must be included. If the LEV system does not fully control the risk of exposure to toxic fumes, respiratory protective equipment should be added. Respiratory protective equipment should be used in any case of welding out of doors.
All welders, irrespective of how long the job will take, should wear respiratory protective equipment, or make use of a LEV without exception. This is because, given the new results, there is no longer any safe period during which welding can be undertaken without the risk of exposure to these carcinogens.
What To Do Right Now
With immediate effect, Risk Assessment plans should be updated to include and adhere to these new, more stringent, expectations. All welders should be thoroughly trained in the correct use of both ventilation systems and respiratory PPE so that they are always working safely and compliantly. Of course, existing health and safety should still be adhered to, with ear defenders and appropriate precautions being taken against noise injury, vibration levels being monitored to prevent hand arm vibration syndrome, even as improvements are made to ventilation systems and respiratory protection is stepped up.
It is possible to work safely as a welder: all that is required is appropriate training and the provision of suitable ventilation systems and respiratory protective equipment. Ensure your workplace is compliant and rest assured that you and your welders are as safe as possible while on the job.