While not all welders get sick as a result of welding smoke and fumes, the health risks they face can lead to both short-term and permanent health conditions. These range from relatively minor throat and lung infections and usually short-lived metal fume fever to asthma, pneumonia and cancer.
Internationally welding fume is classified as potentially carcinogenic, and while the biggest risk is thought to come from welding stainless steel, it isn’t limited to this metal. Pneumonia is common for welders prone to lung infections, and it is known to be a killer.
There are various ways of minimizing the dangerous health risks associated with welding fume and gases. These include the use of welding smoke and fume extraction systems, as well as taking other steps like designing jobs to minimize hot work and using manufacturing sequences and welding techniques to reduce fumes.
It is also important for welders to be aware of the increased dangers of using some welding techniques as opposed to others.
Design and Manufacturing Solutions to Reduce Hot Work
Welding is by its very nature, hot. However, by using 3D design techniques, it is possible to reduce the time welders need to spend cutting and welding using heat. It is also sometimes possible to use cold jointing techniques including rivets and bolds, or modern adhesive technologies.
Another way to reduce fumes is to use thinner guage materials, although this is not always possible. Thinner guage metal generally requires less welding passes, and lower power for sheet metalwork, which translates directly to less fume.
Automated processes will also reduce the amount of hot work welders need to do manually.
Welding Techniques That Minimize or Maximize Health Risks of Fume
The American welding industry is enormous and includes the full range of cutting, gouging and welding possibilities, each of which uses different welding equipment. The problem is that welders can’t always to choose to use a different technique just because it is safer. But recognizing the dangers of one technique over another is a good start as steps can – and must – be taken to minimize health risks and maximize safety, including by using welding smoke and fume extraction systems in the workplace.
These are some of the most common processes used in the welding industry, starting with those that produce the least amount of fume.
Submerged arc welding (SMA) produces the lowest fume and is normally an applied automatic welding process.
Resistance welding (RW) produces less fume than the various manual metal arc (MMA) welding processes and can sometimes be used instead of an MMA process. There are more than 10 types of RW, each of which has its own specific use.
Laser cutting is a thermal cutting process and it produces less fume than any other cutting process.
Tungsten inert gas (TIG) welding uses a non-consumable tungsten electrode that doesn’t melt, and produces less fume than any of the other MMA welding processes. However, it produces quite significant amounts of nitrous oxide and ozone, both of which are irritants that cause other health problems.
Plasma cutting uses a high-velocity jet of plasma to cut metal. It can be done manually or using a machine, and creates more fume than laser cutting, but less than flame cutting.
Metal inert gas (MIG) welding uses a filler metal that is housed in the machine, as well as an inert gas that shields the hot metal from oxygen in the air. It produces quite a lot of fume in the process.
Flame cutting uses a combination of pressurized fuel gas and pressurized oxygen (oxy-fuel) and produces the most fume of the three cutting processes mentioned here.
Metal active gas (MAG) welding, like MIG, produces more fume than most other welding techniques.
MMA, which is often referred to as stick welding because of the electrode used to strike the arc for welding, is probably the most commonly used welding technique and one that produces a lot of fume.
Flux cored arc welding (FCAW) is similar to gas metal arc welding (GMAW) and both use a continuous filler electrode. It produces a lot of fume.
Arc gouging is a cutting-and grinding-related technique that produces a significantly high amount of fume. Plasma gouging is similar, but like plasma cutting, produces a lot less fume.
Welding Smoke and Fume Extraction Systems
Various welding smoke and fume extraction systems can be used to ensure that the working environment for welding, grinding, gouging and cutting is clean and safe. These include various filtration units, some of which are portable, and more sophisticated ventilation systems.
While there are numerous variations, they will generally remove all welding dust and polluted air, minimizing the threat of deadly smoke and fumes irrespective of the processes used.
However, knowing the specific risks – and degree of risk – you or your welders face will help you choose which type of welding smoke and fume extraction systems to choose.
Kemper America specializes in industrial welding exhast systems and can provide custom solutions for any welding environment. Products range from the highly sophisticated and effective Kemper CleanAir Tower to relatively small mobile filters that can be positioned to remove welding dust, smoke and fumes directly from the welder’s breathing area.
All this equipment removes polluted air and replaces it with purified air that is safe for welders to breathe, in this way minimizing the dangerous health risks associated with welding smoke and fume.