Weld Fumes produce some of the most dangerous airborne contaminants in manufacturing facilities, today. The intense heat created by a welding arc turns welding wire—the primary component of weld fumes—and base material into extremely small particulates, roughly 0.1 to 0.5 microns across. For comparison, a human hair is 100 microns across. These numbers are important, because the size of these inhaled particulates matters. Some of these metal particulates are smaller than viruses. The smaller the particulate, the easier it moves through the lungs and into the bloodstream.
The greatest danger of weld fumes comes when some of those tiny particulates are composed of extremely toxic substances. Inhalable metallic particulates are especially dangerous, and it is the job of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to regulate exposure to these substances. As all manufacturers know, OSHA sets “permissible exposure limits” (PELs) for these substances, in order to protect workers’ health. Failure to comply with these regulations brings the risk of fines, lawsuits and reputational harm. Worse yet, worker health could also be seriously threatened.
Health risks from exposure to weld fumes begin with irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. A more serious, but common, condition that results from prolonged exposure is “metal fume fever,” which involves flu-like symptoms. Stomach ulcers and kidney and nervous system damage are associated with exposure to weld fumes, as well. Exposure to fumes containing toxic metals, such as hexavalent chromium or manganese, is associated with even more serious diseases. For example, breathing particulates containing manganese can cause manganism, a neurological condition similar to Parkinson’s disease. Hexavalent chromium is a known carcinogen, and exposure to it is linked with cases of cancer.