Welding is a common activity on construction sites, often performed by Laborers cutting up scrap metal for disposal or resale.

CPWR Recommendations

  • Remove all paint and solvents before welding or torch cutting. Make sure all residues are removed.
  • Use the safest welding method for the job. Stick welding makes much less fume than flux core welding.
  • Use welding rods that produce a low fume. Up to 90% of the fume can come from the rod. Welding guns that extract fumes can capture 95% of the fume.
  • In a confined space, follow all the OSHA confined-space rules — like air monitoring, not storing torches in the space and ventilation.
  • Ensure good ventilation.
  • Use local-exhaust ventilation to remove fumes and gases at their source in still air. Keep the exhaust hood opening 4” to 6” from the fume source.
  • Use air blowers to blow fumes away when outdoors and it’s windy.
  • Keep your face far from the welding plume.
  • If the ventilation is not good, use a respirator. If respirators are used, OSHA requires employers to have a full respiratory protection program. This means proper selection and fitting of respirators, medical screening to be sure a worker can wear a respirator and worker training. Correct respirator storage and cleaning and an evaluation of the program are also necessary.
  • If you smoke, quit.

It is a dangerous activity, not only because of the intense light and high heat, but also because of its toxicity.

Now, a jury verdict in Illinois last fall is reshaping attitudes toward this danger throughout the construction industry. A former welder was awarded $1 million when his lawyers argued successfully that his early onset of Parkinson’s disease was the result of continued exposure to welding fumes containing manganese.

Since the verdict, thousands of new claims have been filed. Some commentators are speculating that welding fumes will be the next asbestos – producing soaring rewards for victims, bankrupting big companies and tying up the court system with thousands of trials.

Welding produces a variety of toxic fumes, depending on the metals being fused or cut and the rods used to make the bonds. For instance, hexavalent chromium is a toxic associated with the welding of stainless steel.

OSHA’s general industry standard sets permissible exposure limits for toxic chemicals. However, the Center to Protect Workers’ Rights (CPWR), the health and safety arm of the AFL-CIO Building and Trades Council, warns, “[T]hese limits may not protect you enough, because they are out of date. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) says welding fumes may cause cancer, so keep the fume levels as low as possible.” The CPWR’s safety recommendations are listed in the side bar.

At the Illinois trial, Dr. Paul Nausieda, medical director of the Regional Parkinson Center at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Milwaukee, testified that rates of Parkinson’s disease symptoms among 20,000 workers exposed to welding fumes were ten times those among the general population.

Lawyers for the plaintiff argued that welding rod manufacturers were responsible for not warning the welder of the fume danger. The manufactures denied any cover-up, asserting that no causal relationship between exposure to manganese and Parkinson’s has been proven. Though few studies have been conducted, the association of Parkinson’s symptoms with welding and manganese has been long and often identified. Apparently, this was enough to sway the jury.

Without taking a specific position on manganese, OSHA acknowledges that welding fumes contain known carcinogens. Thus, it is necessary that workers and employers take precautions.

Some engineering solutions to limit fume exposure have been developed and employed, but their usefulness depends on the situation (see, for example, the Navy Pollution Abatement Ashore Technology Demonstration/Validation Program).  If an engineering solution is unavailable, respirators should be employed (see 3M’s recommendations).

[Steve Clark]