It’s easy to overlook one important factor when welding. Having spent time being productive, cleaning oxide coatings and grime from a workpiece, the welder carries out other prep duties. The base metal parts are lined up and tacked in place. Power tools cut and bevel the weld zone. Next, the welding machine is carried or wheeled in, depending on its weight, and amperage/voltage settings are input. The shielding gas cylinder is coupled, assuming this is GMAW or GTAW work, and the electrode is fitted.
Know Your Gaseous Enemy: What Are Welding Fumes?
It’s a worrying prospect, but at least by adding knowledge of their composition we can figure out ways to block these arc-derived byproducts. Clearly they’re airborne, even though they’re mostly made of heavy metals. Likely it’s their tiny size that allows them to stay suspended in the air for long periods of time.
Thankfully, welders have access to the metallurgical compositions of those heavy metals. Still, that’s not always enough. To clarify that remark, base metal workpieces are rarely forged from single metal elements. It’s unlikely that pure iron or pure aluminum are going to be welded and forced into the air as suspended particles. Alloying elements will accompany the base metals, too. For example, stainless steel is iron based, for the most part, but there’s also small quantities of chromium and nickel in there as well, all the better to increase corrosion resistance, strength and ductility. Popular as these alloying elements are, they just complicate matters when the fused alloys vaporize under arc energies and transform into welding fumes.
So, what do we have so far? The respiratory hazards are engendered by not one, not even two floating elements. No, there could be a whole host of airborne particles being breathed into the lungs of a welder. They include heavy metal oxides like zinc and iron oxide, and then there are any number of ultra-fine metallic particulates in the mix as well. Add to them all of those alloying elements, and we have a potential recipe for respiratory disaster.
And we’re not even finished, not when there’s been no mention of electrode discharge. The majority of that electrode will be consumed, unless it’s tungsten, and enter the weld puddle. But there’s the binding agents and coatings, flux compounds and arc stabilizers in the electrode formulas as well. Try looking at a data sheet for an electrode sometime. Even tungsten variants, unless marked pure, contain small percentages of these puddle controlling chemicals. They manipulate all kinds of workpiece fusing variables, inlding penetration depth and cooling speed. Again, although undeniably process-valuable, some small quantity of these chemicals will vaporize under the welding arc and become airborne.
About the only airborne process variable that won’t impact welder health is the shielding gas. It’s a mostly inert gaseous material, such as argon or helium. However, shielding gases can cause oxygen depletion around the weld area, which is why the early prep stage should include setting up some gas-dissipating ventilation. Remember, although safe to use, a cylinder of shielding gas can displace air. Ventilation should be set up before welding starts.
What Happens When The Fumes Are Inhaled?
It depends on their composition, but there’s a gaseous soup in the air when welding, so let’s err on the side of caution. Heavy metals are never meant to be inhaled and taken into welder lungs. In the short-term, they’ll irritate nasal passages and airways, causing shortness of breath and/or choking. Coughing and throat irritation is likely, as is some amount of respiratory distress. Long-term, well, chronic health issues are possible if a welder continues to work unprotected. This means the possibility of lung cancer exists, unfortunately. The same can be said for COPD, Chronic Pulmonary Respiratory Disease, an ailment that could last a lifetime, even if the welder switches to another occupation or incorporates the correct safety measures.
These are worst-case scenarios, but they happen every day, even to the best welders. There’s also a condition known as Metal Fume Fever. It’s a misleading term, for this is no virus or flu. It’s actually caused by submicron metal oxides entering the tiny air sacs in the lungs. The body doesn’t know how to handle such hardened intrusive invaders, so an immune reaction is triggered. A fever is the autonomic response, although there’s no way the body can break down the particulate metals.
Some of the affects of welding fumes are temporary. Shortness of breath fades after the job is done. Likewise, the coughing and general malaise disappears shortly after the process finishes. Soon after the weld cools, all is normal. Or is it? If the wildly unprofessional worker carries on like this, he’s courting disaster. And that’s not an overly dramatic conclusion. As sure as a weld will cool and harden, the effects of continually inhaling these fumes will be cumulative. Cancer, asthma, so-called “welders lung,” and COPD, they all equal the same thing: a gradual decline in the welder’s quality of life. No one wants this, no one should ever have to accept it, and no one should ever be exposed to these harmful fumes in the first place. That’s why every global welding organization has developed a set of rules for using PPE.
Applying PPE Facilitated Fume Mitigating Systems
PPE, Personal Protective Equipment, is crucial in industries where workers are exposed to hazardous fumes and chemicals on a regular basis. Forms of PPE used on welding projects would be pairs of gloves and protective helmets. We can see an example of one of these protective measures on our website by navigating to a Tooliom TL-U400A Auto-Darkening Welding Helmet. Upon donning it, the helmet acts as a barrier between the welder and the hot chips that would otherwise burn exposed facial skin. Needless to say, it's also equipped with a narrow panel of auto-tinted glass, which provides the welder with clear vision of the welding process while protecting their eyes from harmful UV rays, heat and ejected process matter.
A pair of heat-resistant Tooliom Mig/Stick Welding Gloves completes the outfit, furnishing the welder with a full shield against ejected materials, heat, and super-luminant light rays that lean sharply towards the UV spectrum. However, and this point is beyond important, welding helmets only provide a basic defense against fumes. As soon as the person wearing the helmet draws a breathe, the fumes will penetrate inside its hardened clamshell within a second or two.
If helmets aren’t good enough to stop a welder from inhaling welding fumes, then what is?
Determine measures required to setup an effective LEV System.
Local Exhaust Ventilation can be as passive and simple as an open environment with a few open windows and doors. For a modern, properly regulated LEV solution, however, welders turn to powered ventilation units, to filtered and fan-driven portable devices with hoods, and ducts to actively draw fumes away from the weld site, where they can then be harmlessly dissipated into an open space.
Of course, this kind of answer to worker safety isn’t a priority if the work is being done outside. Carried out in an outdoors setting, there are other problems to solve, such as the shielding gas blowing away due to the presence of a light breeze.
A higher level of self-contained PPE is mandated if the welding is done indoors and without ventilation. For example, pressure vessel of pipeline welding in a confined space leads to a build-up of fumes. Ironically, the inert shielding gas is safe from dissipating elements, but now there are accompanying welding emissions building to a critical level.
A full-face respirator with a built-in filtration system protects against fumes and airborne particles that have nowhere to go. Now, there are copious quantities of literature surrounding this subject. They should be consulted on a regular bais if particulates can’t be managed with an LEV system. As a general rule of thumb, an N95 or N99 mask will handle smaller volumes of emissions. P100 respirators, paired with particulate-blocking cartridges, are another popular solution, but it might be time to step up to a fully-fledged welding respirator if heavy metal contaminants are floating in that fine-particle cloud of weld process fumes.
Stepping up to the very pinnacle of fume protection, an active Powered Air Purifying System, although a costly option, means that welders can rest assured in the knowledge that they’re breathing pure air, not all of those harmful and hazardous particulates put off by welding. Perfect for tight spaces and situations that prevent the incorporation of an effective exhaust or ventilated fume redirection and dispersal mechanism, PAPR helmets are a little like wearing a deep sea diver’s helmet, only it’s airborne gases, not fumes, that are held at bay by the face-sealed headgear.
Utilizing welding techniques that are designed to minimize welding fumes.
There’s no getting around the need for welding helmets and gloves, but there are ways to minimize the risks associated with fumes. PAPR helmets are one solution, LEV systems are another, then there’s the option to introduce a welding process with a reputation for kicking out fewer emissions.
This strategy calls for the introduction of low-emission welding consumables and control panel selections that are biased towards fume reduction. By utilizing welding consumables that produce fewer fumes and selecting control panel settings that prioritize emission reduction, welders can significantly minimize the amount of harmful particulates released during the welding process.
TIG welding machines produce the least amount of airborne waste. The machine uses a non-consummable electrode,so, there are naturally fewer melted electrode byproducts entering the air around the weld site. On a Tooliom TIG/Stick TL-200T 2-in-1 Welding Machine, the production of fumes is low, and it can be lowered even more by dropping the amperage a little. The travel speed of the welding gun will experience a corresponding drop in speed, so productivity levels are going to slow, but that’s a small cost for a process with a healthier arc output.
Unfortunately, and we’re still talking about solution number three, it’s not always possible to choose the base metal used on a welding project. And there’s another unfortunate truth, the fact that some of the more common base metals are the worst offenders when dealing with fumes. Stainless steel is one such offender. Chromium particles are known carcinogens. Alumium oxide isn’t quite as bad, but its inhalation will cause respiratory irritation. This can be mitigated somewhat by cleaning the thin oxide coating off of the workpiece.
A Few Final Words on Fume Hazard Mitigation
The third solution received the most coverage because it has the most moving parts. Workpiece composition will impact fume production and severity of symptoms, as will the welding technique applied. TIG is a cleaner, safer option, but it’ll take longer to use. That won’t please productivity-focused bosses. Low emission consumables are also an issue, one that health conscious welders will want to take time to address. After all, we only have one life, and some of the aforementioned health problems can be chronic, meaning a lifetime of respiratory problems, and cancer.
Welding Fume Comparison
Solutions one and two vary in effectiveness. Powered respiratory gear will work better than a N or P series respirator, but PAPR headgear can be expensive. If working with consumables and techniques that produce fumes, turn first to ventilation, to ducts and hoods, to filters and fans, even. Consult electrode literature, know base metal compositions and OSHA regulations, too. But never compromise, especially when those fumes have the potential to accumulate in a restricted space.
|Understanding Welding Fumes
|Welding fume protection is often overlooked. We explore hazards and solutions for welders.
|The Sources of Fume Production
|Welding fumes are hazardous, composed of airborne particles with heavy metals and toxins.
|Dangers of Inhaling The Fumes
|Inhalation can cause irritation, respiratory distress, and long-term risks like lung damage and cancer. Short and long-term health hazards are explored.
|This is a prep stage job that cannot be ignored. Welders should never simply jump into the work. Covers exhaust systems and fans, ventilation and filtration solutions.
|Learning About Breathing Apparatus
|At the very least, passive N-series masks can be worn over the nose and mouth. For more protection, a P-series respirator is advised, while fully-powered PAPR breathing apparatus is mandated if there’s no ventilation.
|Other Fume Mitigating Measures
|The use of low-emission consumables and welding process/machine settings are detailed in this section.
The Mig vs. TIG Aluminum Welder Showdown - FAQ
Q: What are welding fumes composed of, and why are they considered hazardous?
A: Welding fumes are composed of airborne particles containing heavy metals, gases, vapors, and alloying elements. These fumes are considered hazardous because they can lead to respiratory irritation, lung damage, and even cancer when inhaled. The particles, including heavy metal oxides and ultra-fine metallic particulates, pose serious health risks to welders.
Q: How do welding fumes affect the respiratory system in both the short-term and long-term?
A: In the short-term, welding fumes can irritate nasal passages and airways, leading to symptoms such as shortness of breath, choking, coughing, and throat irritation. In the long-term, chronic exposure may result in serious health issues, including lung cancer, Chronic Pulmonary Respiratory Disease (COPD), and a condition known as Metal Fume Fever. Continuous inhalation of welding fumes can lead to a gradual decline in the welder's quality of life.
Q: What are the three proposed solutions for mitigating welding fume exposure?
- Solution 1: Implementing effective Local Exhaust Ventilation (LEV) systems to actively draw fumes away from the weld site.
- Solution 2: Using passive Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and Powered Air Purifying Respirator (PAPR) headgear to provide clean, filtered air, especially in confined spaces.
- Solution 3: Employing welding techniques that minimize fume production, such as choosing low-emission welding consumables and control panel settings that prioritize emission reduction. TIG welding, known for producing fewer airborne wastes, is highlighted as a cleaner option.