Welding technologies are becoming more and more advanced and efficient, but unfortunately the health risks of operators have also increased.
The profession of welder exposes the operator to a series of problems and risks, connected in particular with the specific activity carried out. In Italy alone, it has been calculated that around one million people manufacture metal products, equipment, or machines, and have to deal with welding processes every day.
However, the estimates do not take into account all those who weld for hobbies, such as DIY enthusiasts or those who are used to personally carrying out home maintenance and repair work; even if exposed less intensively than professional welders, in fact, hobbyists are still in contact with the materials and fumes produced by the welds.
Often and willingly, indeed, precisely because they do not engage in this activity in a professional but only amateur way, they tend to be less equipped as regards the due protections to be used; moreover, they are also less informed from the point of view of potential health risks and, consequently, on how to behave in order to implement correct prevention. Operating in domestic environments, it is even more likely that the risk of inhaling welding fumes and dust is extended to family members and people who live in the immediate vicinity.
The evolution of welding technology has led to an exponential increase not only of the dangers, but also of the types of risk, and this above all because of the new methods. We speak in particular of MIG, MAG and TIG welds that use different types of materials and gases, but we proceed in order to better understand the real extent of the problem, starting from the specific consequences on health.
The effects can be of two types, chronic or acute, and can generate respiratory problems, non-respiratory problems, or both. Respiratory problems are mainly caused by the fumes and dust that are produced during welding; while non-respiratory ones are caused by other factors, but for now we will focus on those related to the inhalation of fumes and dust.
The fumes are produced by the fusion of metals such as aluminum, cadmium, chromium, iron, lead, zinc, tungsten, copper, manganese, titanium, nickel, molybdenum and fluorides; the coated electrode method is the one that produces the highest smoke emission, and since the best selling inverter welders (here are the best models ) are the electrode ones, the associated risks affect a greater number of operators, both professional and amateur.
The powders, on the other hand, are mainly derived from modern continuous wire welding, therefore of the TIG-MIG-MAG type, especially when they are performed with the aid of rods of filler material. Since these welding techniques are more recent and also more complex, however, the percentage of exposed people is lower as it is concentrated almost exclusively in the professional welder range.
Metallic fume fever
The acute respiratory effects are mainly represented by the so-called metal fume fever, the symptoms of which begin to appear 4 or 8 hours after exposure and are similar to those of a normal flu syndrome.
The further acute risk associated with the inhalation of welding fumes, but of a more serious nature, is a decrease in respiratory functions, in particular lung volumes, maximum expiratory flows, and the transfer of carbon monoxide.
As for the chronic respiratory effects, however, the fumes can cause respiratory infections, asthma, pneumoconiosis, and pulmonary fibrosis, or the appearance of small nodules in the pulmonary alveoli, due to the accumulation of metal oxides produced by at least 15 years of exposure to the fumes welding, chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and, in severe cases, lung cancer.
The other types of problems
Non-respiratory effects, on the other hand, can be caused by exposure to electricity and electromagnetic fields, to light generated by the arc, to heat, noise, and vibrations generated during work, to the occasional dejection of slag and molten metal, to the decomposition of particular chemical products, such as degreasers, lubricants, oils, and paints, or more simply to the habit of acquiring incorrect working postures or of being negligent as regards the application of the safety standards relating to protective equipment.
The most common acute non-respiratory effects, therefore, are burns and electrocution due to heat and electricity, UV photo-dermatitis on unprotected skin, systemic inflammation, and photo-keratoconjunctivitis caused by exposure to the UV spectrum of the light generated by the voltaic arch. The areas most affected by these problems are the eyes and the skin, especially if they are not adequately protected.
Chronic non-respiratory effects, on the other hand, are far more dangerous as they can affect virtually anybody apparatus, from the locomotor to the reproductive one, not to mention the nervous, lymphatic, or cardio-circulatory system. Furthermore, their greater danger is mainly due to the fact that the symptoms often arise only after decades of exposure to the causes.
Manganese, for example, is potentially neurotoxic if inhaled in high concentrations, and together with lead and aluminum it is suspected of causing psychiatric symptoms even in exposed workers. Welders of highly alloyed steels, on the other hand, are particularly subject to a limitation of the daily dose of sperm and its quality, therefore they are more sensitive to the risks concerning the reproductive system.
Vibrations, on the other hand, can cause serious damage to a hearing by compromising the ability to perceive above or below certain frequency thresholds, while electromagnetic fields, although they represent a very mild risk for the body, can still lead irritation of muscle and nerve cells.
Maximum attention at all times
It is therefore advisable to always operate within the safety parameters and using the appropriate protective clothing: overalls, gloves, boots and welder’s helmet, without forgetting a respiratory protection mask equipped with special particulate filters. Furthermore, professional welders are advised to periodically undergo specific tests with blood and urine samples, aimed at discovering the possible presence of the substances mentioned in the article in the body, in order to implement a minimum of prevention.