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Welding and cancer

There are many different welding techniques; but most fall into the categories of electric arc welding or oxy-fuel welding.

Welding activities produce many hazards through the production of contaminants in welding fumes and ultraviolet (UV) radiation in the welding arc. Both of these are Group 1 carcinogens, meaning they can cause cancer in humans. Exposure to these fumes or UV radiation can increase your risk of developing melanoma of the eye, lung and other cancers.

Your cancer risk from welding depends on:

  • the type of welding process used
  • the material being welded (including any surface coatings or metal treatments)
  • the contaminants in the air (for example vapours from solvent cleaners or degreasers)
  • the consumables being used
  • shielding flux or gas
  • the power settings
  • where the welding is being carried out (outside or in an enclosed space)
  • the length of time welding.

Airborne contaminants

Welding fume is made when a metal is heated above its boiling point. The metal cools and then condenses into fume, and fine particles that can be breathed in.

Some welding fumes are easy to see but many are invisible. In 2017, all types of welding fumes were classified as a Group 1 carcinogen. Welding fumes contain potential cancer-causing agents (carcinogens), including metallic oxides, silicates and fluorides.

Table 1. Common cancer-causing welding fumes

FUME TYPESOURCECARCINOGEN
BerylliumHardening agent found in copper, magnesium, aluminium alloys and electrical contactsKnown carcinogen
Cadmium OxidesStainless steel containing cadmium or plated materials, zinc alloySuspected carcinogen
ChromiumMost stainless steel and high alloy materials, welding rods. Also used as plating materialSome forms are carcinogens (hexavalent chromium)
NickelStainless steel, nickel-chromium, nickel-copper and other high-alloy materials, welding rods and plated steelIncreased cancer risk has been noted in occupations other than welding


Welding process fume levels diagram

Figure 1: Different types of welding produce different amounts of welding fume

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation

UV radiation is also a known carcinogen. Electric arc and laser welding give off UV radiation. When welding, you are exposed to direct UV radiation produced by the arc and the UV radiation that is reflected off hard and smooth surfaces around you. Exposure can cause sunburn, eye damage (welder's flash), skin cancer, eye melanoma and cataracts (clouding on the lens of the eye).

The effect of the UV radiation depends on:

  • the type of welding (electric arc or laser welding)
  • the intensity of the radiation
  • how long you are exposed to the radiation
  • the distance you are from the welding activity.
Occupational Cancer Risk Series - Welding
Download the PDF

Effective controls

All Australian workplaces must follow work health and safety laws. These vary slightly between states and territories, but the duty of care for employers and responsibilities of workers across Australia is similar:

  • employers are required to ensure the health and safety of their workers at their workplace
  • workers must take care of their own health and safety
  • workers must not negatively affect the health and safety of other people
  • workers must follow any reasonable instruction and workplace health and safety policies.

The Safe Work Australia's Welding Processes Code of Practice and Airborne Contaminants Exposure Limits explain how employers and workers can control welding hazards to minimise exposure to contaminants in the air. The Fume Minimisation Guidelines from Weld Australia also contain further information about controlling airborne contaminants. A summary of recommended controls is outlined in Table 2. For full details see the above documents.

If adequate control measures are not in place, welders and people working near welding activities are at increased risk of being exposed to carcinogens.

Eliminate or reduce exposure to identified hazards using the hierarchy of control (Figure 2) and implement a risk management process. Workers should always be involved in the risk management process to identify hazards and to carry out control measures that suit the workplace. Training workers on hazards and the policies and procedures in place to manage them is also a work health and safety requirement.

The hierarchy of risk control diagram

Figure 2. The hierarchy of risk control

Air monitoring in the breathing zone of the welder can be used to check if welding contaminants are being reduced by the controls. An occupational hygienist can help with air monitoring.

Table 2. Summary of controls for welding hazards

ACTIVITYCONTROL
Surface preparationRemove any paint or coatings from surfaces before welding. Do not use chlorinated solvents for cleaning.
Welding process and consumablesWhere possible, choose a welding process and consumables that produce less fume and/or UV radiation. Change power settings to reduce fumes.
Welding fume and gasesA combination of local exhaust and forced dilution ventilation is best practice. Natural ventilation should not be used as a control measure.
Personal protective equipment (PPE)Wear either air supplied or air purifying respiratory protection that filters particulates and ozone. They should be fitted for each worker individually. Use a full-face welding helmet, with a UV filtered lens. Wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirts without cuffs in non-flammable material, covering all exposed skin; welding leathers are recommended. Wear insulated, flame resistant welding gloves and steel toe leather boots.
IsolationSeparate welding activities from other work jobs. Many workers welding in one space can increase welding fume. Use welding screens to protect other workers from welding arc. Where possible, automate welding activities.
Share activitiesRotate job tasks between workers. This will help to reduce the duration of exposure to fumes, gases and UV radiation.

Health monitoring is used to identify workers who have an increased risk of developing a disease from work activities. If control methods are not in place, health monitoring may be required under work health and safety legislation. 

For any concerns related to adequacy of control measures at your workplace, contact:

  • your workplace supervisor or management (if you are an employee)
  • your workplace health and safety representative or Union representative
  • state and territory work health and safety regulators
  • Safe Work Australia



How do I detect cancer early and reduce my cancer risk?

If you are concerned about your health or think you may have been exposed to a cancer-causing agent, it is important to speak with your doctor or health professional. To find out what you can do to create a workplace that supports healthy choices to help reduce cancer risk, contact Cancer Council 13 11 20.



Other useful websites

UK Health and Safety Executive: Task-specific COSHH guidance for welding, cutting and allied jobs

hse.gov.uk

Welding fume – protect your workers

hse.gov.uk

Welding fume – Do you need extraction or RPE?

hse.gov.uk


Sources

  • International Agency for Research on Cancer. Chromium, Nickel and Welding, in IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. 1990, IARC World Health Organisation: Lyon, France.
  • International Agency for Research on Cancer. Radiation, in IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. 2012, IARC World Health Organisation: Lyon, France.
  • Holly, E.A., et al. Intraocular Melanoma Linked to Occupations and Chemical Exposures. Epidemiology. 1996. 7(1): p. 55-61.
  • Gunnel, P., et al. Occupational risk factors, ultraviolet radiation, and ocular melanoma: a case-control study in France. Cancer Causes & Control. 12(5): p. 451-459.
  • Vajdic, C.M., et al. Sun exposure predicts risk of ocular melanoma in Australia. International Journal of Cancer, 2002. 101(2): p. 175-182.
  • Tenkate, T. Optical radiation hazards of welding arcs. Rev Environ Health, 1998. 13(3): p. 131-146.
  • Kendzia, B., et al. Welding and Lung Cancer in a Pooled Analysis of Case-Control Studies. American Journal of Epidemiology, 2013. 178(10): p. 1513-1525.
  • International Agency for Research on Cancer. Cadmium and Cadmium Compounds, in IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. 2012, IARC World Health Organisation: Lyon, France.
  • International Agency for Research on Cancer. Chromium (VI) Compounds, in IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. 2012, IARC World Health Organisation: Lyon, France.
  • International Agency for Research on Cancer. Nickel and Nickel Compounds, in IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. 2012, IARC World Health Organisation: Lyon: France.
  • Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety. OSH Answers Fact Sheets: Welding – Fumes and Gases. 2014, Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety: Ontario, Canada.
  • Safe Work Australia. Welding Processes – Code of Practice 2012. Safe Work Australia: Canberra, ACT.
  • Health and Safety Executive. Welding fume – Reducing the risk. Merseyside. 2015, Health and Safety Executive: Merseyside, UK.
  • Anthony J Dixon, Brian F Dixon. Ultraviolet radiation from welding and possible risk of skin and ocular malignancy. Medical Journal of Australia, 2004. 181(3): p. 155-7.
  • Australian Radiation and Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency. Radiation Protection Standard for Occupational Exposure to Ultraviolet Radiation. 2006, ARPANSA: Canberra, ACT.
  • Model Work Health and Safety Act 2011, No. 137. 2011: Canberra, ACT.
  • Safe Work Australia. How to manage work health and safety risks – Code of Practice. 2011, Safe Work Australia: Canberra, ACT.

Find out more about workplace cancers