What are welding fumes?
Welding fumes are a complex mixture of hazardous chemicals produced during welding.
The composition of welding fumes depends on factors, including:
- the welding process,
- the metal(s) being welded,
- shielding gases or flux used,
- the composition of the welding rod, and
- any contaminants or coatings present on the metal being welded.
In addition to the primary duty to ensure the health and safety of workers and others at the workplace, persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) must ensure that a person at the workplace is not exposed to an airborne contaminant above its workplace exposure standard (WES).
In addition to the WES for total welding fumes, there are also WES for some individual components of welding fumes. As a PCBU, you must determine the composition of welding fumes at your workplace and ensure that no person is exposed to a level above the WES for the individual components of welding fumes, as well as the WES for total welding fumes.
Certain gases and vapours may also be released during welding processes. You must also ensure that no person at the workplace is exposed to level of these contaminants above their respective WES.
Appendix B of the model Code of Practice: Welding process includes a list of chemicals that may be produced during welding processes.
If you are uncertain about whether a person at the workplace would be exposed to an airborne contaminant from welding processes above the relevant WES (total welding fumes or individual chemicals), you must conduct air monitoring.
Further information on WES is available in the Guidance on the Interpretation of Workplace Exposure Standards for Airborne Contaminants.
Who is at risk of exposure to welding fumes?
Workers undertaking welding processes are at risk of exposure to welding fumes. However, other persons at the workplace may also be exposed to welding fumes.
What is the WES for total welding fumes?
The WES for welding fumes represents the concentration of total welding fumes within a worker’s breathing zone.
Workers must not be exposed to levels of total welding fumes greater than 1 mg/m3 over an eight-hour working day, based on a five-day working week.
Why has the WES for total welding fumes changed?
WHS ministers have agreed to an immediate reduction to the WES for welding fumes from an eight-hour time weighted average of 5 mg/m3 to 1 mg/m3.
The reduction will better protect workers from the adverse health effects associated with welding fumes, such as lung cancer.
When do workplaces need to comply with the reduced WES?
The reduced WES takes effect when implemented in a jurisdiction. Contact your work health and safety regulator for further information.
What does the reduced WES mean for persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs)?
Exposure standards should not be considered as representing an acceptable level of exposure. They establish a statutory maximum upper limit. To comply with the WHS legislation you must take all reasonably practicable steps to eliminate or minimise the risks from exposure to welding fumes, not just ensuring that exposure is below the WES.
If you are a PCBU (for example, an employer or small business owner), you may need to implement additional control measures to ensure that no person is exposed to a level of welding fumes (total and individual components) above the WES .
Here are four things PCBUs can do to help protect workers from exposure to welding fumes:
- Identify the hazardous components in welding fumes at your workplace.
- This can come from air monitoring data or from the safety data sheets for the welding rods, if available.
- Arrange for air monitoring if you are uncertain which components are produced and whether the relevant WES would be exceeded.
- Assess the risk of welding fumes at your workplace.
- This includes consideration of the processes and work environment, observing the nature of work and consulting with workers about work activities that may lead to fume exposure, as well as reviewing incident reports.
- Review the control measures you have in place to eliminate or minimise your workers’ exposure to welding fumes.
- Talk to your workers and any health and safety representatives (HSRs) about the reduced WES, how it might impact your workplace, including changes to control measures and any training your workers might need.
For more information about managing the risk associated with welding, see the model Code of Practice: Welding processes.
What do workers need to know about the change?
Maintaining a safe workplace is everyone’s responsibility. PCBUs are required under WHS laws to ensure workers are informed on any workplace exposure risks and the measures they may need to take to remain safe while at work. Workers must take reasonable care for their own health.
As a PCBU, you should talk your workers about:
- the adverse health effects from exposure to welding fumes and other chemicals produced during welding,
- the reduction of the WES for welding fumes will better protect workers from adverse health effects, including lung cancer, and
- any changes to the control measures to ensure that they are not exposed to levels of welding fumes above the WES.
Workers are encouraged to consult with their PCBU and/or HSR on what the WES change may mean in their workplace. For further advice on the implementation of this change in your jurisdiction, you or your workers can contact the relevant work health and safety regulator.