Force on fumes

15 April 2008

Welding operations result in toxic fumes that generally enter the body through inhalation into the lungs. Types of fumes vary, depending on the composition of the metal, coatings, residue, solvents, gases, welding rod and welding method. Toxic metals and compounds in welding operations include, aluminum, beryllium, cadmium and its oxides, chromium, copper, fluorides, iron oxides, lead, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, vanadium and zinc. Toxic gases produced are ozone, carbon monoxide, hydrogen fluoride, carbon dioxide, phosgene, phosphine and oxides of nitrogen.

Short-term effects include metal fume fever and flu-like symptoms generally lasting one day. Others are coughing; irritation of the eyes, nose and chest; shortness of breath; bronchitis; fluid in the lungs (edema); inflammation of the lungs (pneumonitis); and loss of appetite. Long-term effects include cancer (particularly of the lungs); larynx, urinary tract and kidney damage; gastritis; skin diseases; heart disease and Parkinson's disease. Smoking increases the risk of short and long-term health effects related to fumes.

The toxicity of the fumes is of considerable concern because an estimated 700,000 to 800,000 workers in the US alone rely on welding as their primary occupation. Welding has always been an essential vocation at many SC&RA member companies.

Of particular interest today is the suspected link between Parkinson's disease in welders and manganese, a metal found in welding rods. This progressive nervous disease occurs most often after the age of 50. It is associated with the destruction of brain cells that produce dopamine and characterized by muscular tremor, slowing of movement, partial facial paralysis, peculiarity of gait and posture, and weakness. Among those who suffer from the disease are actor Michael J. Fox, boxer Muhammad Ali, and former US Attorney General Janet Reno.

The suspicion that manganese could contribute to Parkinson's disease was first documented in medical studies in 1837, only 20 years after the affliction was discovered by Dr. James Parkinson. Other environmental factors such as prolonged exposures to pesticides, as well as genetics, also have been linked to the disease.

Allegations that welders have been kept in the dark about the medical correlation between the inhalation of manganese particles in welding rod fumes and Parkinsonism, by manufacturers and, to a lesser degree, welders' employers, have prompted the plaintiff's bar to see welding fume litigation as the next trend in mass tort litigation, according to Tim Hillegonds, senior claims investigator, NBIS Construction & Transport Underwriters, Inc.

Litigation

“Lincoln Electric Company, the leading US manufacturer of welding rods, accompanied by Fortune 500 industrial titans General Electric, Westinghouse, Union Carbide, among many others, appear in the crosshairs of an overtly aggressive plaintiff's bar,” said Hillegonds. “Their immeasurably deep pockets as well as the plaintiff's belief that manufacturers did little or nothing to inform welders of the potential dangers in using their products, has prompted a barrage of lawsuits reminiscent of [those concerning exposure to] asbestos.”

Despite misgivings about manganese, it continues to be used in the mass production of welding rods because, despite years of trying, scientists have failed to find a viable substitute. The greyish white metal resembles iron, is extremely hard and brittle, makes the weld fast, and prevents the weld from cracking.

Although most of the attention has focused on lawsuits involving welding rod manufacturers, the legal battlefield ultimately may shift to include contractors. SC&RA urges its members involved in welding operations to take the necessary steps to protect their employees and keep the exposures below the permissible exposure limits, threshold limit values, and time weighted averages.

Adequate ventilation is the key to providing engineering controls limiting employee exposure to welding fumes. The current US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommended permissible exposure limit of manganese is 0.2 milligrams per cubic litre of air total fume concentration in the breathing zone of the welder or others in the area during all types of welding in an eight-hour work day programmes often include medical evaluations; medical surveillance; proper selection; fit testing procedures; employee training in general and specific hazards and exposures; air monitoring results; limits of each respirator; donning, cleaning and storage of respirators; periodic inspections and maintenance; hygiene practices and requirements to use only respiratory protection approved by the NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health).

Welding has long been considered one of the most hazardous occupations. Besides risking exposure to toxic fumes, welders encounter hazards that include metalparticulates, sparks, fire, molten metals, extreme heat, electrical energy, ultraviolet rays, infrared rays, noise and vibration. Do the following as part of an overall welding safety programme:

&#bull; Conduct a hazard assessment of your welding shop or welders' work area prior to performing welding or cutting operations.

&#bull; Post warning signs identifying potential hazards.

&#bull; Prepare and implement a fire protection plan and an emergency plan.

&#bull; Implement safeguards dealing with combustible materials and electrical hazards.

&#bull; Ensure that there is sufficient personal protective equipment in the area.

&#bull; Conduct employee training of general and specific hazards, covering substance exposures, personal protective equipment, the proper use of the equipment, safe work practices, engineering controls, air monitoring results, medical evaluations, emergency procedures and surveillance programmes.

The primary objective of welding-safety programmes always should be to protect the well-being of employees. In the process, it may also be possible to ward off lawsuits that could threaten the financial health of your company. Viable safety programmes may even perk up profits by helping to hold down company insurance premiums.

The Welding Fumes Task Force White Paper and the report on manganese welding fume litigation can be reviewed at www.scranet.org/files/wtc/wtfwhitepaper.pdf. The White Paper also includes web links for both the plaintiff and the defendant in web site litigation.

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