New research shows welding fume exposure causes cancer
Brand new scientific evidence just released from the International Agency for Research on cancer reveals that exposure to all welding fume, including mild steel welding, can cause lung cancer and possibly kidney cancer in humans. As a result, the Workplace Health Expert Committee has endorsed the reclassification of mild steel welding fume as a human carcinogen.
The HSE has announced they will be strengthening their enforcement of safety measures for all activities involving welding fume, including mild steel welding, with immediate effect. These measures will target all relevant workers, employers, self-employed, contractors and any others who undertake welding activities in any industry.
Scope of the problem
A commentary in the highly respected and influential medical journal, The Lancet, stated: "Worldwide, an estimated 11 million workers have the job title of welder, and around 110 million additional workers probably incur welding related exposures."
Given that estimates for the UK alone suggest there are between 40,000 and 80,000 welders employed in Britain, including those working in jobs where welding is only part of the function, this is obviously a major concern involving a huge number of people.
Previously known risks
It has been known for a long time that the process of welding and the inhalation of welding fume are hazardous to health, with a range of adverse health effects understood to be caused. These include 'arc-eye', which creates flash burns in the eyes and is caused by exposure to bright ultraviolet light from welding torches. In addition, exposure to lead paint, during the welding of old railings for example, can cause damage to the nervous system as well as anaemia.
Mary Cameron, Occupational Hygiene Team Leader at SOCOTEC, elaborates further in trade journal Safety and Health Practitioner, 15th February 2019:
Welding fume inhalation has long since been understood to be hazardous to health, even before the most recent HSE announcement classifying of mild steel welding fume as a human carcinogen.
Welders are more prone to lung infections, reduced lung function and may experience irritation of the throat and lungs. Welders may also experience flu like symptoms after welding (metal fume fever) which is usually linked to welding on galvanised metals, as well as mild steel.
Adverse health effects from exposure to manganese (present in mild steel welding fume) may include neurological effects similar to Parkinson's disease.
Welding stainless steel can produce hexavalent chromium which is a lung carcinogen. Stainless steel fume may also contain chromium oxide and nickel oxide – both of which can cause asthma. Iron is present in most forms of welding fume and may cause siderosis which is the deposition of iron oxides in lung tissue.
These alarming new medical findings prove that exposure to welding fumes is in fact more dangerous than was previously thought.
Action required – ensuring compliance
Given that general ventilation is not sufficient to provide the level of control necessary to remove the cancer risks now known to be caused by welding fume release, the HSE is advising that in addition to suitable respiratory protective equipment (RPE) to protect against the residual fume, the use of suitable engineering controls for all welding activities indoors – e.g. Local Exhaust Ventilation (LEV) – may also be necessary.
In addition, in order to safeguard and protect workers against the serious threat posed to health from welding fume, the HSE has made it clear that risk assessments must reflect the reclassification of mild steel welding fume as a human carcinogen, and is unequivocal in its stance that, "Regardless of duration, HSE will no longer accept any welding undertaken without any suitable exposure control measures in place, as there is no known level of safe exposure".
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