AWS: 2020 Welding Fume and Respiratory Protection Survey

Even with everything that is now known about the dangers of welding fume, only 20% of Australian and New Zealand welders answered ‘Yes’ to AWS’s survey when they were asked if they felt protected from welding fume at work.

Only 11% of workplaces had engaged an occupational hygienist to conduct air monitoring and the majority of workplaces did not include welders in the PPE decision making process (53%) and expected the welders to pay for their own respiratory equipment (65%). Disturbingly, says AWS, 32% of welders are not using any form of respiratory protection and 37% are still unaware that welding fume had been reclassified as carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Unfortunately, welders believe that ‘cost’ is the largest barrier and the reason why businesses will not introduce better controls to protect their welders. With the results above, according to AWS, it is clear Australia and New Zealand have a long way to go in the promotion of the safety and well-being of welders. Increasing the level of knowledge regarding dangers and protective measures was highlighted as the second largest factor in ensuring welders are better protected in the future.

Where the responsibility lies

The employer has the primary responsibility to ensure that welders are not exposed to health and safety risks while performing their job. If elimination of the risk is not possible, the employer must minimise the risk.

Where substitution and reduction of hazardous chemicals is not possible, engineering and/ or administrative controls as well as personal protective equipment, such as powered air respirators, must be introduced. The dangers of welding fume are very real, but once qualified and quantified, protecting welders can be straightforward. As a result, all welders should feel protected from welding fume at work.

IARC classified welding fume as carcinogenic

In March 2017, scientists from around the world met at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC; Lyon, France) to evaluate the carcinogenicity of welding fume. Based on substantial new evidence through observational and experimental studies, welding fume has now been reclassified from ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’ as it was originally classified in 1989 to its new Group 1 classification as ‘carcinogenic to humans’. The working group concluded that there is “sufficient evidence in humans” that welding fumes cause lung cancer and limited evidence for kidney cancer.

Air monitoring in the workplace

The employer must ensure that air monitoring is carried out for welding fume if:

• They are not certain on reasonable grounds whether the airborne concentration of the substance or mixture at the workplace exceeds the relevant exposure standard, or

• Monitoring is necessary to determine whether there is a risk to health.

Are welders included in PPE discussion?

When selecting suitable PPE, the employer should consult with the welders. A welder’s knowledge, experience and personal preferences improve the overall decision-making process. As someone who is directly affected by welding hazards, a welder is entitled to take part in the consultation process and selection of suitable PPE. Welders should aim to educate themselves on the risks, understand the appropriate PPE available and look to involve themselves in the consultation process and ultimate selection of suitable PPE.

Protective measures for welders

Regarding PPE, the Cancer Council has advised that welders should wear either ‘air supplied or air purifying respiratory protection’ and use ‘a fullface welding helmet, with a UV filtered lens’. A powered air purifying respirator (PAPR) can provide air over 50 times cleaner than the air inhaled by an unprotected welder. When compared to disposable and reusable half mask respiratory protection, a PAPR can provide superior respiratory protection and does not require fit-testing.

With flip-up PAPR welding helmets, welders can have completely clear and uninhibited views of their workpiece and surroundings, while maintaining their desired level of respiratory protection at all times with no breathing resistance. The powered air respirator goes wherever you go, allowing you to move around your workplace with perfect vision, improved comfort, and uninterrupted respiratory protection. A recent case study from a manufacturing company with over 1,500 employees, including 600 certified welders, found that ‘foreign body eye injuries decreased over 70% year-on-year’ in areas that implemented the PAPRs with integrated flip-up auto-darkening welding helmets. Worker compensation claims decreased markedly while employee morale increased substantially.

Financial responsibility

Under both the Australian Model WHS regulations and the New Zealand Health and Safety at Work Regulations, the employer is financially responsible for providing PPE to workers and must not charge employees for using the equipment. The only exception to this is if the personal protective equipment has been provided by another person conducting a business or undertaking, like a labour hire company.

What’s needed to protect welders?

Safe Work Australia is currently reviewing the exposure standards for welding fume (not otherwise classified) and is planning to make the draft evaluation reports and recommendations available for comment in the coming months. Following public comment, the recommendations will be considered by Safe Work Australia members. If agreed, these recommendations will then progress to Commonwealth, state and territory ministers responsible for work health and safety as the relevant decision-makers on any changes to the model work health and safety laws or workplace exposure standards.

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