The Air Quality Challenge of Weld Fumes

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.

The Particular Risks of Metal Particulates

Weld fumes are most dangerous when they contain metallic particulates. The high temperatures needed for welding create fumes containing exceedingly small particulates. Most of these particulates come from the weld wire, but some come from the base materials, as well. These metals include hexavalent chromium and manganese, two dangerous substances when inhaled.

Manganese is a trace element found in many kinds of welding. Breathing these particulates can cause manganism, which is a neurological condition similar to Parkinson’s disease. Hexavalent chromium is found in fumes coming from welded metals that include chromium, such as stainless steel. These particulates can be highly irritating to the eyes, nose and throat. More importantly, however, this substance is a known carcinogen and can cause cancer. Light metals in weld fumes, such as beryllium and aluminum, can cause health problems, as well. Beryllium, in particular, carries serious health dangers when inhaled as weld fumes. These dangers include lung cancer.

The Slippery Problems of Oil Mists

Oil mists can pose serious health concerns in a manufacturing environment. The impacts vary depending on the fluids being used and on the size of the particulates being generated. Some mists may contain chemicals that irritate the skin, eyes, nose, throat or lungs. Thermal processes can create sub-micron, aerosolized particulates that are easily breathed in by workers. Depending on the chemistry of the fluid and the level of exposure, workers exposed to oil mists may develop a number of serious symptoms. Prolonged exposure has been linked to asthma, chronic bronchitis, chronically impaired lung function, fibrosis of the lung and cancer. Workers may also be exposed to other disease-causing pathogens if these mists are contaminated by microorganisms.

Oil mists can also pose a serious physical hazard. When these mists are left unaddressed, they can form a layer of grease over floors and surfaces. This not only leaves a bad impression on workers and customers, but it can also create potential slip-and-fall hazards in the facility.

It is important to protect workers from the effects of oil mist exposure. Appropriate collection and filtration can reduce the potential health risks and increase worker satisfaction and productivity. RoboVent is proud to be an industry leader in oil mist collection and filtration.

Documented Ties Between Weld Fumes and Cancer Raise the Risks

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), prolonged exposure to weld fumes can cause cancers such as lung, larynx and urinary tract cancers. Exposures to multiple metallic substances within weld fumes have been tied to cancer, as well. OSHA regulates many specific metals on a one-by-one basis.

A well-known hazard in weld fumes is hexavalent chromium. This substance is most commonly produced when welding stainless steel. The chromium present in stainless steel is turned into chromium with a valence of +6 and is often written Cr(VI). This substance is highly toxic and a known carcinogen. Its cancer incident rate is considerably higher for those exposed to it. OSHA has specific regulations for this substance—29 CFR 1910.1026 and 1926.1126.

OSHA regulations regarding these dangerous metallic particulates are based on decades of research. The dangers they have identified are not annoyance symptoms—they are well documented cases of cancer. In order to maintain a safe workplace, employers need to implement serious air quality controls that mitigate these individual metallic compounds, as well as weld fumes in general. Failure to comply with OSHA regulations risks not just your workers’ health but your company’s legal compliance.

The Explosive Risks of Combustible Dust

One of the most serious risks that come from dust in manufacturing environments is that of combustible dust. When this dust occurs in the right concentration with oxygen, an explosion is possible. A simple ignition is all that is needed. A cigarette, an overheated bearing on a piece of equipment or any other small ignition hazard can trigger an explosion.

What’s more, this explosion might not be contained to the immediate vicinity. Dust explosions happen when a small explosion around an ignition source spreads to the rest of the facility. In these cases, the initial explosion stirs up the dust in the rest of the facility, and then that dust ignites. The ensuing secondary explosion can be significant, injuring or killing workers and destroying property. Such an explosion can be violent enough to destroy a facility.

One of the most common kinds of dust explosions is seen in the agricultural industry. In fact, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that, over the last 35 years, 500 explosions have occurred in grain handling facilities in the United States. These have killed 180 people and injured more than 675. Grain dust is the fuel for these explosions.

To avoid the extreme dangers of combustible dust, its accumulation must be prevented by using dust collectors. RoboVent is a leading manufacturers of dust collectors with a proven history of controlling dust and mitigating the chances of fires and explosions.

For further information on combustible dust and how to fight it, download the RoboVent Combustible Dust Hazards in Dust Collection Brochure.