How to Protect Workers from Chemicals
In the construction industry, welding and cutting are common activities that can unfortunately lead to severe health consequences. The metals used in creating a new weld joint and the chemicals used in the metals themselves that are being heated can both produce toxic fumes.
Exposure to these fumes can create immediate health effects like dizziness, nausea or shortness of breath. Long-term exposure often results in chronic health symptoms stemming from serious underlying medical conditions like cancer, neurological damage, kidney damage and other such debilitating problems. Some welders subjected to repeated exposures may even die as a result of their resulting health condition.
The only way to avoid having this tragedy happen to your workers is to engage in safe workplace practices for chemical management. Use proper ventilation, reduce the risk of exposures by removing any harmful chemical agents when possible, create work policies that limit employee exposures, and provide personal protective equipment (PPE) along with the training to properly use it.
Chemical Exposure for Construction Welders and OSHA Compliance
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has many regulatory requirements for compliance when it comes to chemical exposures at the workplace.
Each hazardous substance often has permissible exposure limits (PEL). Exposure limits usually apply to the maximum allowed amount of a hazardous chemical in the air surrounding a work site, and they can also include exposure time limits for individual workers.
You can consult OSHA’s website for a full list of requirements and policies regarding both the physical levels of exposure and the needed workplace practices to be in compliance.
The Chemical Dangers of Welding and Cutting
Welding and cutting heats up metal materials to incredibly-high temperatures. These high temperatures cause substances that do not usually take on a gaseous form — such as heavy metals — to become vaporized and capable of being breathed in and absorbed by the worker.
These dangerous chemicals and substances include:
- Beryllium — alloying agent in copper and other metals; beryllium can cause chemical pneumonia in acute exposures and lung failure in long-term exposures
- Mercury — sometimes used as an anti-corrosion coating
- Lead — heating of metals coated in lead-based paints can produce lead oxide fumes; inhalation can cause lead poisoning
- Cadmium — alloying agent and anti-rust coating for steel; acute exposures can lead to death; long-term exposures can cause kidney damage and emphysema
- Zinc — often used in the manufacture of galvanized metals, brass and other alloys
- Chlorinated hydrocarbon solvents and phosgene gas — chlorinated hydrocarbon solvents are common components of chemical cleaning and degreasing agents used in construction; heating of these chemical fumes creates phosgene gas, which rapidly destroys lung tissue when inhaled; never use cleaning agents with chlorinated hydrocarbon solvents near a welding area
- Carbon Monoxide — created by the incomplete combustion of fuels; can asphyxiate welders in unventilated areas
- Ozone — created during electric arc welding; can damage lung tissue
- Iron oxide — formed when iron-containing metals like steel are heated; fumes can lead to irritation in throat, lungs and other respiratory areas
OSHA’s Safety Guidelines
The keys to avoiding and limiting chemical exposures in construction welders include:
- Providing ventilation such as fume exhaust systems
- Educating workers on potential dangers and safe work habits
- Limiting daily exposures and giving workers lengthy breaks
- Providing adequate PPE along with the training to use it
- Carrying workers compensation insurance to ensure prompt treatment of any workers who are suffering from acute or long-term exposures
OSHA provides a workbook describing in detail how to manage, control and limit the dangers of hazardous chemicals during construction, which includes safe welding practices. Exercise your due diligence and protect your workers so that their reward for their hard labor is not dampened by chronic health problems.