GLOBAL research in 2018 showed that the global welding market grew unexpectedly strong. That growth, in turn, implied increasing demand for welders. One of the factors driving the growth was the huge drive to renew infrastructure in the developed world, and build new infrastructure in developing economies, such as South Africa and the rest of the continent. But while these spells improved career prospects for welders, Rani Naidoo, an application engineer/technical manager: Personal Safety Division at 3M South Africa sounds a warning about the health risks associated with the vocation.

“The South African welding community lags global best practice when it comes to safety, and that’s a cause for concern. Welding is a great career because it is one of the foundations of a modern economy, but those practicing it must be protected against multiple, severe health risks,” she advised. “Workers must educate themselves as a first step to keeping themselves safe.” Typically, welders see burns as the main danger they face, but there are other even more dangerous hazards. One of them is the respiratory problems caused by welding fumes. Contrary to popular belief, visors or shields do not protect against fumes, which can cause immediate health effects such as eye, nose and throat irritation, dizziness, nausea and headaches. Metal fume fever presents with flu-like symptoms such as a high temperature, chills, aches, vomiting, weakness and fatigue. More serious, long-term effects can take 20 years or more to show. They include lung function abnormalities, including bronchial asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pneumoconiosis and other pulmonary fibrosis (chronic beryllium disease, cobalt lung) and lung cancer. Larynx and urinary tract cancers can also occur, while certain fumes can lead to stomach ulcers, kidney damage and nervous system damage.

“Protecting against harmful fumes means taking the scientific approach seriously – we call it the science of safety. Well-designed respiratory equipment is the obvious first step, and there is continuous development of better, more user-friendly products by companies like 3M. “In addition, although the equipment has to be properly fitted or it won’t work, and workers must use it correctly and all the time,” she says. “One must also put aside old wives’ tales like drinking milk will protect against metal fume fever.” Another frequently ignored hazard comes from noise. Many types of welding are themselves noisy, especially the cutting and grinding that precedes welding. An additional factor that must be considered is the fact that welding often takes place close to other, even noisier activities. Noise suppression equipment must be used to protect workers from permanent noise induced hearing loss, and its specifications must consider all the noise. Research and development is continuously leading to equipment that not only works better, but that integrates well with other equipment. For example, welding visors with integrated air supply will protect against respiratory and eye damage and will also provide a visor action that does not grate against earmuffs. Often, welding takes place in confined spaces, such as inside tanks. In such cases, arrangements for enhanced air supply will be needed alongside protection against high fume concentrations. As important, there needs to be a plan for what to do in an emergency, plus the necessary equipment, for example, if a worker is overcome by fumes, how will he or she be rescued quickly and without also putting the rescuers in harm’s way?

“Of course, the employer has the legal obligation to take adequate steps to protect employees undertaking hazardous work, but in reality it is the employees’ lives and health that are on the line. The unfortunate reality is that enforcement of existing regulations is patchy, at best. “Employees must take the initiative to understand what the hazards really are and what needs to be done to protect them, and then engage with managers and union stewards to ensure they get what they needs. “But they must also recognise that safety starts with the culture on the factory floor, and that’s something they can hugely influence,” she says.

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