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5/28/2018 Welding Fume and Gas Exposure -- Occupational Health & Safety

Welding Fume and Gas


Exposure
Welding fume exposure tends to be highly variable due to several exposure
factors.
By Jerome E. Spear Jun 01, 2011

Welding fumes are very small par cles that are formed when the vaporized metal rapidly
condenses in air. They are typically too small to be seen by the naked eye but collec vely form a
visible plume. The health effects associated with metal fumes depend on the specific metals
present in the fumes; they may range from short-term illnesses, such as metal fume fever (i.e., flu-
like symptoms), to long-term lung damage and/or neurological disorders.

Gases are also generated from welding, which may include carbon monoxide (CO), ozone, and
nitrogen oxides. CO is an odorless, colorless gas that may be formed by the incomplete combus on
of the electrode covering or flux and by the use of carbon dioxide (CO2) as the shielding gas.
Overexposure to CO inhibits the body's red blood cells to sufficiently carry oxygen to other ssues
within the body, which subsequently results in asphyxia on. There is also a poten al of an oxygen-
deficient atmosphere if welding inside a confined or enclosed space if an inert gas (such as argon)
is used as the shielding gas.

Ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and nitric oxide are


produced by the interac on of ultraviolet light
(from the welding arc) with the surrounding air.
These compounds are irrita ng to the eyes,
nose, and throat. High exposures also can cause
fluid in the lungs and other long-term
pulmonary illnesses.

If the metal has been degreased with a


chlorinated solvent, other airborne gases (such
as phosgene, hydrogen chloride, chlorine gas,
etc.) may be produced. These gases generally
cause irrita on to the eyes, nose, and
respiratory system, and symptoms may be
delayed.

The first step in assessing poten al exposures to welding fumes and gases is to understanding
common welding processes, their rela ve fume genera on rates (FGRs), and other poten al
exposure factors.

Common Welding Processes


Different welding processes have different FGRs. An overview of common welding processes and

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their FGRs is provided below:

Shielded Metal Arc Welding (SMAW, "s ck welding") is commonly used for mild steel, low-
alloy steel, and stainless steel welding. In SMAW, the electrode is held manually, and the
electric arc flows between the electrode and the base metal. The electrode is covered with a
flux material, which provides a shielding gas for the weld to help minimize impuri es. The
electrode is consumed in the process, and the filler metal contributes to the weld. SMAW
can produce high levels of metal fume and fluoride exposure; however, SMAW is considered
to have li le poten al for genera ng ozone, nitric oxide, and nitrogen dioxide gases.

Gas Metal Arc Welding (GMAW) is also known as metal inert gas (MIG) welding. GMAW is
typically used for most types of metal and is faster than SMAW. This process involves the
flow of an electric arc between the base metal and a con nuously spool-fed solid-core
consumable electrode. Shielding gas is supplied externally, and the electrode has no flux
coa ng or core. Although GMAW requires a higher electrical current than SMAW, GMAW
produces fewer fumes because the electrode has no fluxing agents.

Fluxed Core Arc Welding (FCAW) is commonly used for mild steel, low-alloy steel, and
stainless steel welding. This welding process has similari es to both SMAW and GMAW. The
consumable electrode is con nuously fed from a spool, and an electric arc flows between
the electrode and base metal. The electrode wire has a central core containing fluxing
agents, and addi onal shielding gas may be supplied externally. This welding process
generates a substan al amount of fumes because of the high electrical currents and the flux-
cored electrode. FCAW generates li le ozone, nitric oxide, and nitrogen dioxide gases.

Gas Tungsten Arc Welding (GTAW) is also known as tungsten inert gas (TIG) welding. GTAW is
used on metals such as aluminum, magnesium, mild steel, stainless steel, brass, silver, and
copper-nickel alloys. This technique uses a non-consumable tungsten electrode. The filler
metal is fed manually, and the shielding gas is supplied externally. High electrical currents
are used, which causes this process to produce significant levels of ozone, nitric oxide, and
nitrogen dioxide gases. However, GTAW produces very li le fume.

Submerged Arc Welding (SAW) is another common welding process used to weld thick plates
of mild steel and low-alloy steels. In this welding process, the electric arc flows between the
base metal and a consumable wire electrode; however, the arc is not visible because it is
submerged under flux material. This flux material keeps the fumes low. There are also li le
genera on of ozone, nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide gases. The major poten al airborne
hazard with SAW is the fluoride compounds generated from the flux material.

Fume Genera on Rates


The primary sources of informa on when determining the components likely to be in the fume are
the material safety data sheet and/or the manufacturer's technical data sheet of the consumable
electrode/wire. About 90 to 95 percent of the fumes are generated from the filler metal and flux
coa ng/core of consumable electrodes (Ly le, 2004). Because the base metal weld pool is much
cooler than the electrode p, the base metal contributes only a minor amount of the total fumes.
However, the base metal may be a significant factor of the fume exposure if the metal or surface
residue contains a highly toxic substance (such as chromate-containing coa ngs, lead-based paint,
etc.).

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In addi on to the welding process, the FGR is also influenced by the following factors (Spear, 2010):

Electrical current: In general, the FGR is exponen ally propor onal to the current.

Arc voltage: The FGR generally increases when the arc voltage increases.

Electrode diameter: The electrode diameter has a modest effect on the fume genera on
rate because of the differences in voltage and current. In general, a small-diameter electrode
has a higher FGR than a large-diameter electrode, all else remaining equal. However, there is
usually a step up in electrical current when using larger-diameter electrodes.

Electrode angle: The angle of the electrode to the work piece has a slight (but unpredictable)
affect on the FGR.

Shielding gas: In gas-shielding arc welding, the FGR tends to be greater when 100 percent
carbon dioxide (CO2), as compared to argon, is used as the shielding gas.

Speed of welding: As the welding rate increases, the fume genera on rate obviously
increases.

Steady current/pulsed current welding: Technology has advanced to power sources that
have pulsing capabili es. Studies (Wallace et al., 2001) have shown that u lizing a pulsing
current during welding generates fewer fumes than under steady current welding process.

In general, FCAW produces the greatest fume genera on rate (for low-alloy welding), closely
followed by SMAW. However, when welding chromium-containing steel, Cr(VI) contained in the
fumes generated from SMAW tends to be greater than Cr(VI) generated from FCAW. Alkali metals,
such as sodium and potassium, stabilize Cr(VI) and are o en SMAW electrode coa ngs and may
also be present in FCAW flux (Fiore, 2006), which may explain why Cr(VI) concentra ons from
SMAW opera ons are o en higher than Cr(VI) concentra ons from FCAW. GMAW tends to have a
moderate rela ve FGR. GTAW and SAW are inherently low fume-genera ng processes.

Other ancillary process (such as air arc gouging and plasma arc cu ng) also can generate a
significant amount of fumes because of the high electrical current and arc voltage associated with
these processes. Poten al exposures to not only the operator, but also other personnel in the work
area can be significant from such processes, especially in enclosed and confined spaces.

Hexavalent Chromium Exposure Factors


Pursuant to a court order, OSHA issued a final rule on Feb. 28, 2006, that addresses occupa onal
exposure to Cr(VI) (OSHA, 2006). OSHA determined that the Cr(VI) rule is necessary to reduce
significant health risks due to Cr(VI) exposure.

Chromium metal is found in stainless steel and many low-alloy materials, electrodes, and filler
materials. The chromium present in electrodes, welding wires, and base materials is in the form of
Cr(0), so welders do not ordinarily work with materials containing Cr(VI). It is the high
temperatures created by welding that oxidize the chromium in steel to the hexavalent state.

Welding fume exposure tends to be highly variable due to several exposure factors. These factors
should be considered when assessing poten al exposures to Cr(VI). The primary Cr(VI) exposure
factors are as follows:
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5/28/2018 Welding Fume and Gas Exposure -- Occupational Health & Safety

1. Welding process (as summarized above)

2. Chromium content and flux ingredients in the consumable

3. Chromate coa ngs on base material

4. Welding rate

5. Rela ve welding posi on (e.g., down-flat, horizontal, ver cal, and/or overhead welding
posi ons)

6. Local exhaust ven la on (LEV)

7. Welding environment (inside or enclosed space)

8. General/dilu on ven la on and natural air currents

9. Other welding (or ancillary/allied processes) performed in the area

Assessing Exposures to Welding Fumes and Gases


The above informa on should be considered when conduc ng exposure monitoring during welding
opera ons. The welding process and composi on of the material (primarily the ingredients in the
electrode, unless the steel is coated) should be the basis of categorizing similar exposure groups
(SEGs).

The SEGs can be further defined by the specific task, posi on of the work piece (in rela on to the
welder's breathing zone), presence or absence of LEV, and/or other work-related factors.

This ar cle originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Occupa onal Health & Safety.

About the Author


Jerome E. Spear, CSP, CIH, is principal of J.E. Spear Consul ng, LP in Magnolia, Texas. To contact
him, call 281-252-0005 or visit www.jespear.com.

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