Welding operations produce potentially harmful gas and metal fumes. If you feel any symptoms while or after inhaling welding fumes, it’s essential to leave the area, seek fresh air, and hydrate. If there’s difficulty in breathing or if symptoms escalate or persist, medical assistance should be sought promptly for a proper diagnosis and necessary treatment.
For non-professionals who’ve accidentally inhaled small amounts of welding fume and aren’t experiencing any symptoms, avoiding further inhalation is typically sufficient. However, it’s crucial to be aware if you work in an inadequately ventilated space where welding is carried out, as fumes can spread. As a result, you might experience symptoms even if you’re not involved in welding operations directly. This risk is inherent when working near welding operations.
Welding fumes have immediate, short-term, and long-term health effects, hence limiting exposure to these harmful fumes is crucial. Using welding fume extractors is an effective way of mitigating this risk.
Understanding the Composition of Welding Fumes
Welding fumes contain gases (Argon, Helium, Nitrogen, Carbon Dioxide, Nitric Oxide, Nitrogen Dioxide, Carbon Monoxide, Ozone, Phosgene, Hydrogen Fluoride) and metal (Aluminum, Antimony, Arsenic, Beryllium, Cadmium, Chromium, Cobalt, Copper, Iron, Lead, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silver, Tin, Titanium, Vanadium, Zinc).
The composition of these fumes is influenced by factors such as the welding electrode, coatings, and the material being welded. For instance, stainless steel welding typically produces more chromium (including hexavalent chromium) or nickel. Aluminum welding fumes contain notable amounts of aluminum oxide (damaging to the lungs) and ozone (a toxic, carcinogenic gas).
Welding fume particles range from 0.005 to 20 µm in size, with most particles being smaller than 1 µm. These inhaled particles can deposit throughout the respiratory system.
Actions to Take if you inhale welding fumes and feel sick at work
According to OSHA, breathing welding fumes could cause the following immediate health effects:
- eye, nose, and throat irritation;
- dizziness and nausea;
- breathing difficulties that could lead to suffocation or asphyxiation.
If experiencing any of these symptoms, follow the subsequent advice.
Exit the Area
Upon manifestation of the above symptoms, you should promptly leave the polluted area. Prolonged exposure to toxic welding fumes can exacerbate these symptoms. Safety should be prioritized whether these symptoms are related to welding or not.
Seek Fresh Air and Hydrate
Find a place with fresh air, such as an outdoor location or an uncontaminated indoor area, and drink water to maintain hydration.
Get medical attention
If breathing becomes difficult or if symptoms worsen, persist, or reoccur, consult a healthcare professional immediately to receive a diagnosis and initiate necessary treatment.
Short-Term Health Effects Triggered by Welding Fumes
Among welders, metal fume fever, or “Monday morning fever” or “welder’s cough,” is a prevalent occupational disease. It’s characterized by flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, joint pains, muscle pain, headache, cough, nausea, and malaise typically occur 4 to 10 hours post-exposure.
In the USA alone, hundreds of cases of metal fume fever are reported annually.
Contrary to an old myth circulating among welders, there’s no scientific evidence to support that consuming milk alleviates health issues caused by welding, such as fume fever.
Taking a Break from Work
According to pubmed.gov, metal fume fever is generally a benign disease with symptoms spontaneously resolving within 12 to 48 hours following cessation of exposure. But it does have the potential to be serious, especially for workers with pre-existing medical conditions.
Wait until the symptoms are gone before welding again.
Ensure you consult a healthcare professional as soon as possible for a diagnosis and to commence any required treatment.
Long-Term Health Impacts Caused by Welding Fumes
Once again, according to OSHA, long-term health effects of breathing welding fumes can include:
- lung damage and various types of cancer;
- stomach ulcers;
- kidney damage;
- nervous system damage;
- prolonged exposure to manganese fume can cause Parkinson–like symptoms.
As per a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), welding fumes are categorized as carcinogenic.
Effectively Protecting Welders Against Welding Fumes
While it’s important to address health issues, addressing the source of the problem – the fumes – is crucial. Here are some strategies to prevent health problems caused by welding fumes:
- Weld only when it’s necessary, as alternative processes can sometimes replace manual welding.
- Opt for welding processes and materials that produce fewer fumes.
- Use welding fume extractors. For more information, see our general article about welding fume extractors, or one specifically about MIG welding fume extraction if that’s the process you are using.
- Ensure welders position themselves to avoid breathing in fumes and gases.
- Ensure your workspace is well-ventilated.
- Use personal protective equipment if the above measures don’t sufficiently reduce exposure to safe levels.
More details on our step-by-step method to tackle welding fume problems can be found here.
In the US, OSHA has established a Permissible Exposure Limit or PEL for welding fumes of 5 mg/m3, which represents the average concentration of the substance in the air over an 8-hour period within the welder’s breathing zone. Specific substances found in welding fumes are also submitted to their own PEL. To identify which substances need to be monitored, an analysis of the components involved in the welding process might be necessary. Welding fume sampling might also be required.
Each province or territory in Canada has set its own exposure limit, generally ranging from 3 to 10 mg/m3. Some jurisdictions differentiate between inhalable and respirable particles. Several toxic substances found in welding fumes (such as chromium or nickel) also have their concentration limits.
Here are the exposure limits for welding fumes in each Province and Territory in Canada.
- TWA: Time-Weighted Average over 8 hours
- STEL: Short-Term Exposure Limit (maximum for 15 minutes, no more than four times per day with at least 60 minutes in between)
- C: Ceiling (must never be exceeded)
- (i): Inhalable particles (smaller than 100 µm)
- (r): Respirable particles (smaller than 4 µm)
- ALARA: As low as reasonably achievable
** For 30 minutes during a workday.
Achieving these results solely with general ventilation is nearly impossible, making fume extractors indispensable.
Welding in a space with inadequate ventilation increase the risk. For more information, refer to our blog post on the dangers of welding in poorly ventilated or confined spaces.
Feel free to contact us. We will help you protect your workers and comply with welding fumes standards anywhere in the US and Canada.