The HSE estimates that 40 to 50 welders are hospitalised each year in the UK due to breathing welding fume. Lung infections can lead to pneumonia which is sometimes fatal.
The nature of this combination of metallic oxides, silicates and fluorides depends on the material being welded. When a metal is heated beyond its boiling point, the vapours condense into fine particles. Harmful elements in welding fume can include aluminium, beryllium, cadmium oxides, carbon monoxide, chromium, copper, fluorides, hexavalent chromium, hydrogen fluoride, iron oxides, lead, manganese, nickel, nitrogen oxide, ozone and zinc oxides.
The different welding techniques – from submerged arc to arc gouging – carry varying degrees of risk. Working indoors or in a confined space increases this risk. Ideally, the work setup will ensure that the welding fume does not travel into the welder's face.
Despite wearing protective respiratory equipment, welders sometimes need the added protection of equipment that captures and extracts the fume at source. The use of a negative pressure system directs the fume to a capture point, which can be located outside if necessary.
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Welding fume is addressed by the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 – COSHH. Employers need to complete a risk assessment, take appropriate control measures, train their employees, provide monitoring when required and plan for emergencies.