Many welders today are at increased risk for hearing loss, not only due to the noise they are routinely subjected to as part of their job, but quite possibly from the welding fumes they are exposed to on a regular basis.
For welders, regular job hazards include: loud noise, intense heat, blinding light and breathing in potentially harmful welding fumes.
Fumes are a byproduct of any type of welding; however, the most fumes are created due to the high heat from vaporized metals during arc welding. The danger of these fumes will depend upon many factors, such as the base metal, type of welding rod, any paint or coatings, level of ventilation, etc.
Few people are aware that exposure to certain chemicals or heavy metals can harm hearing. In combination, loud noise and simultaneous exposure to industrial chemicals or heavy metals can work to cause higher levels of hearing damage than either type of exposure alone.
In recent years, the presence of manganese in welding fumes has come under closer scrutiny.
A naturally occurring metal and essential trace nutrient, manganese is routinely found in welding rods and wire. Although necessary for healthy bones and skin, in high-concentrations it is known to cause serious neurological damage.
The permanent neurological effects caused by toxic levels of manganese is said to cause symptoms, such as poor balance and tremors, similar to those of Parkinson’s disease. Animal studies have shown that even low levels of exposure can cause permanent damage to the auditory nerve fibers and sensitive cells of the inner ear.
The World Health Organization recognized the risk in 1981 when it labeled manganese poisoning a serious occupational health hazard for welders.
To better understand how manganese damages the inner ear, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recently awarded a four-year, $2 million grant to study the matter, with the ultimate goal of finding new treatments to help prevent the condition among those at risk of exposure.
It’s especially important that all employers of welders have an industrial hygiene monitoring plan in place to help prevent and reduce dangerous exposures. Welders also should also take an active part in hearing conservation and should have their hearing tested annually.
Here are ways welders can reduce hazardous exposures:
Know your working materials. When asked employers must show you Material Data Safety Sheets, which can help you know potential exposures with using a particular type of welding rod or material.
Don’t weld on painted parts. Remove surface coatings before you begin welding.
Keep your face from welding plumes. Ensure you have proper ventilation and wear a respirator when necessary.
Employers must provide safety training. Take it seriously; it can have serious consequences for your long-term health.
Protect others from exposure. Put on clean clothes before leaving the workplace to ensure you don’t carry hazardous materials that could expose others.
Have questions? Speak with your employer’s safety or industrial hygiene department. To learn more about your employer’s responsibilities, contact your local union or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration at 1-800-321-6742.
Dr. Kevin Liebe is an audiologist at Columbia Basin Hearing Center (www.ColumbiaBasinHearing.com). He has written on various topics relating to hearing loss and public health.