Mitigating Welding Fume Exposure

In 2017, the International Agency for Research on Cancer reclassified welding fume as a Group 1 carcinogen, aligning it with asbestos and silica. This reclassification emphasised the significant health risks posed by welding fume exposure, not only to welders but also to non-welders who share the same workplace air. The UK’s HSE recognised this by issuing an update in 2019, highlighting enhanced enforcement of expectations for LEV and RPE adoption in UK Workplaces.

Consider this: A welding fume particle that is 0.5 μm in size can take up to 2 days to settle on the floor when released from a height of 1.5 meters. This prolonged suspension underscores the importance of effective fume control measures, especially in shared work environments, where non-welders are also at risk.

Research into Welding Fume Control Practices

Recent international surveys revealed concerning findings about welding fume control practices. Only a minority of workplaces utilised engineering controls, such as on-gun fume extraction or hooded capture LEV, to remove welding fume from the environment. Furthermore, a significant portion reported still seeing and smelling welding fume in the workshop before welding starts in the morning. This lack of control is particularly alarming considering the low usage of respiratory personal protective equipment (PPE) among workers who are exposed to welding fumes.

Translating these findings to the UK context, a 2010 report by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) provided insights into the state of welding fume control measures. Among the key findings:

  • COSHH Assessments: Several sites lacked comprehensive COSHH assessments covering welding processes, highlighting the need for improved risk assessments.
  • Health Surveillance: Health surveillance for welders was lacking at many sites, indicating a gap in identifying and addressing potential health risks.
  • Local Exhaust Ventilation (LEV): While LEV was available at some sites, its effectiveness varied, with issues such as incorrect positioning and inconsistent usage.
  • Perceptions on Engineering Controls: There was a common misconception among welders regarding the necessity of engineering controls, particularly for TIG welding.
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) refers to equipment designed to protect the wearer from inhaling hazardous substances, including welding fumes. While RPE was available at some sites, its usage was inconsistent, and certain welding techniques were overlooked in terms of protection. RPE typically includes devices such as powered air purifying respirators (PAPR), negative pressure filtered half masks, and power-assisted filtered respirators incorporated into welding visors. Proper selection and usage of RPE are critical to safeguarding the respiratory health of workers in welding environments.

It is an employer’s legal responsibility to reduce welding fume exposure to as low as reasonably practicable for all persons, not just the welder. On-Gun Fume Extraction LEV and Hooded Capture LEV are two common methods used to reduce welding fume exposure to all workers by capturing welding fume at the source and removing it from the environment.

In a recent study by AWS, on-gun fume extraction was found to remove 33% more welding fume from the workplace environment compared to LEV hooded capture. Additionally, on-gun fume extraction has the added benefit of following the welder as they move, unlike fixed LEV hooded capture, which requires the welder to be perfectly positioned relative to the capture hood and for the welder and welding arc location to remain relatively stationary.

Measurements taken during the study suggested that exposure to welding fume can approximately double when the capture hood distance from the arc increased from 30cm (correct distance from the arc based on manufacturer’s instructions) to 50cm. This has significant implications for welders who do not remain stationary or for those who are doing long welds. Hence, it’s essential for employers to match the engineering controls with their welders’ needs, requirements, and environmental factors. According to a recent AWS survey, 78% of welders require mobility when they are welding.

With the workplace exposure limit for welding fume now in effect in Australia, many workplaces will be looking to on-gun fume extraction technology to solve their fume problem. However, it’s crucial to consider the effectiveness of the chosen solution. While various options may appear to meet the criteria of an ‘engineering control’, only a system like Translas on-gun fume extraction, co-designed by a government-run scientific body to reduce welding fume exposure below workplace exposure standards, can ensure long-term effectiveness.

In the UK, exposure limits for various substances are set according to Workplace Exposure Limits (WELs), which specify both 8-hour time-weighted averages (TWAs) and 15-minute short-term exposure limits (STELs) for different substances. For example, in the UK the generalised e-dust limit (Particles up to 10 micrometres) for a 8 HR TWA exposure limit is 4mg per m3 (EH40/2005 Workplace exposure limits). However, it’s noteworthy that these limits haven’t been revised for some time. There is the potential for these to drop to lower levels, such as has been implemented internationally in places such as the Netherlands and Australia, where exposure limits have been further reduced to as low as 1mg per m3. This underscores the importance of innovative solutions like Translas, which was specifically designed and created to ensure the most efficient on-torch extraction possible, vastly exceeding the capabilities of competitors, aiming to achieve the 1mg per m3 target.

Find out more about our range of available Translas Products here, or contact us for more information.

Published 14th March 2024