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Metal Fabrication

Don’t Fume

Welding plumes are dangerous. So keep your face out of them.



On Aug. 23, 2001, California’s division of Occupational Safety and Health cited nine violations and proposed fines of neary $59,000 against Sony Pictures and Columbia Pictures for safety violations on the Spider-Man movie set that created the circumstances in which welder Tim Holcombe was killed. Part of a crew building a New York City set, Holcombe was struck in the head when a boom extension toppled onto an aerial basket in which he was riding. Illegal alterations to a forklift caused the boom extension to fail.

Undoubtedly, welding is a hazardous occupation, but, like any other hazardous work, knowledge of, and respect for, known perils should allow any welder to live a long and happy life.

Most welders I’ve met solidly know fire and electrical hazards, but, in many cases, they don’t know as much about welding fumes and relevant gases. Fortunately, most know the cardinal rule of welding safety: Keep your face out of the plume (the smoke coming from the point of the welding action). Most know that zinc fumes cause metal-fume fever, a flu-like illness that goes away in a few days after the exposure ends. But there’s more.

Welding requires proper ventilation, because welding fumes contain not only gases, but also particles of the metal itself. Those particles are much more dangerous than, say, cigarette smoke. For example, if you’re welding iron or steel with rods of the same composition, the fumes contain iron oxide, which, reportedly, exhibits varying toxicity levels. Some compounds contain suspected carcinogens. Continuous inhalation of iron oxide can cause liver and kidney damage and lead to respiratory-tract problems and/or chronic iron poisoning, which may include hemorrhaging in the gastrointestinal tract, prolonged blood clotting and more.

Stainless-steel fumes contain nickel and chromium. Nickel fumes can cause asthma, and chromium fumes can lead to cancer, according to a bulletin from the Building-Construction Trades Organization. The bulletin also alerts you that chromium can cause sinus problems. This same fact sheet says mild-steel (red iron) fumes contain manganese, excesses of which can cause Parkinson’s disease.

Other welding fumes include carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone. Further, when you’re welding materials overlayed with paint, coatings or fillers, you may breathe fumes containing cadmium, zinc oxide or lead. Cadmium can cause kidney problems and cancer.


Lead, seldom found in today’s industrial environment (but be suspicious of old paint), can cause lead poisoning and, worse, if you carry lead dust home on your clothes, it can make your family, especially your children, sick. Lead poisoning causes headaches, sore muscles and joints, stomach cramps, memory loss, and kidney and nervous-system damage.

You may be amused to learn that, even if you get rid of all of the aforementioned hazards, welding rods themselves can contain fluoride or free silica, depending upon the rod’s coating. When ordering, specify low-fume welding rods.

Oh yes, don’t forget secondhand fumes. Welders need to protect themselves and ensure their by-products aren’t putting others at risk. But this is a two-way street, meaning everyone in the shop should remember that welders — because of the job’s attention requirements and visual shielding — aren’t always aware of what is happening around them.

In fact, all shop workers should be trained to recognize when other guys may be impaired by helmets or, for that matter, machine noise. They may not see potential danger or hear warning shouts.

These things worry me. They always remind me of the day — and way — that Kevin Evenstadt died. Kevin was a maintenance employee of Burlington Northern Railroad.

On October 17, 1988, Kevin was assigned to tighten some loose track bolts in Loveland, CO. I lived there at the time. The Loveland, CO-based Reporter-Herald newspaper’s report said that the track had been cleared for maintenance. Kevin parked the service truck across the tracks and stepped behind it. There, he started a bed-mounted, gasoline-engine air compressor and, using an air-driven impact wrench, kneeled and proceeded to tighten the track bolts. As you know, both the compressor and wrench make a lot of noise.


Meanwhile, uphill and a mile away, a single boxcar that had been parked as an additional safety measure began, inexplicably, to roll. Within seconds, it gained speed and was out of control. The police estimated the runaway boxcar’s speed at 50 mph when it hit the truck — and Kevin. Deafened by the compressor and wrench noise, Kevin didn’t hear the warning shouts. Witnesses said he never knew what hit him.


Here are some suggestions to protect yourself from fumes when welding or cutting:

* Remove all paints and solvents from the surface to be cut or welded.

* Determine and use the safest welding or cutting method.

* Use low-fume welding rods.

* Have excellent ventilation.


* Keep your face far from the welding plume.

* If the ventilation isn’t satisfactory, use a respirator.

* If you smoke, quit.




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