Welders are routinely exposed to arc flashes, intense heat, and blinding light, putting them at risk for vision loss and burns. However, recent findings show that welders are also at a high risk for hearing loss. While an obvious reason seems to be their noisy work environment, prolonged exposure to welding fumes could also be a cause of hearing loss. In fact, it is the combination of loud noise and simultaneous exposure to industrial chemicals that elevates hearing damage among welders.
Arc welding fumes
Although fumes are an inevitable byproduct of welding, arc welding is the major source of welding fumes. Tri City Herald reports, “In arc welding, high heat from an electric arc is used to melt and fuse metals, and during this process the arc’s heat vaporizes a small amount of metal which is released into the air as fumes.” How harmful these welding fumes are depends on the type of base metal, welding rod, paint, coating, filler material, temperature, ventilation level, etc.
Hazardous metal in welding fumes
Manganese has been identified as a major harmful metal in welding fumes. Even low levels of manganese can permanently damage the auditory nerve fibers and sensitive cells of the inner ear while higher levels are said to cause symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease. A recent study of 20,000 welders determined that 10 percent had developed Parkinson’s disease as compared to only one percent of the general population.
The Tri-City Herald report also said that “the increased risk was recognized in 1981 by the World Health Organization (WHO), when it labeled manganese poisoning as a serious occupational health hazard for welders.” Thousands of welders have filed lawsuits against welding rod manufacturers, distributors and suppliers.
Safe welding practices
The following practices help build a safer working environment for welders:
- Welders should always ask employers for the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) of the materials they are working on in order to gauge potential exposure.
- Workers should never weld on painted parts and they must take off the coating before welding.
- Welders should maintain a safe distance between their face and the welding plume.
- Sufficient ventilation and proper personal protective equipment (PPE) are key to safety.
- Employers must provide safety training for their workers. Workers should take such training seriously.
- Welders should leave work clothes on site and ensure that no hazardous materials from work reach their homes.