Welding fumes exposure has been ruled as contributing to lung cancer in multiple Australian workers compensation claims, with compensation judgements awarded to the complainants. These outcomes have implications for all industries that carry out metal fabrication in terms of managing employees' exposure to the damaging fumes.

The welding processes used extensively in manufacturing and steelworks involve the release of fumes containing a group 1 carcinogen, as classified by the World Health Organization in 2017, along with asbestos and silica.

Materials responsible may include:

  • mild and high tensile steel
  • low and high alloy steels
  • stainless steel
  • aluminium
  • galvanised steel
  • other alloys.

Welding these materials generates fumes containing a mixture of very fine particles and gases which can be inhaled by workers performing the job1.

The cancer risk potentially may affect Australia's 42,500+ metal fabricators and almost 20,000 welders, with global research indicating 0.1% per annum incidence of lung cancer attributed to occupational welding fumes2.

Welding fumes: industry investigations to address the cancer risk

To identify the extent of the risk and find working solutions SafeWork NSW commissioned a study by the University of Sydney's School of Public Health to examine exposure to welding fumes and the use of safety measures to control this.

At the same time the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union is campaigning for the legal exposure limit of 5 milligrams of fumes per cubic metre to be reduced in line with global standards. In Germany the legal limit is 1.25mg per cubic metre and in the Netherlands it is a more conservative 1mg per cubic metre. SafeWork Australia is currently reviewing allowable levels.

Cancer risk from welding also 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.

Welding fumes: what risk preventative measures can be taken?

Along with reducing the acceptable limit of fumes concentration, business owners can also adopt measures to lower the risk of inhalation by using alternatives to welding where possible and observing preventative protocols identified by SafeWork Australia3..

These could include:

  • ventilated isolation booths
  • using engineering controls to capture and remove fumes, gases and vapours
  • cleaning base metals to reduce fume generation by oils, greases, mill scale and solvents
  • job rotation and/or job sharing
  • wearing appropriate personal protection equipment
  • conducting regular air monitoring.

Who may be the subject of a claim if welders develop cancer?

Workers who develop lung cancer as a result of workplace exposure may seek support or damages through workers compensation, but if investigation uncovers unsafe work practices the liability then potentially falls on others, including

  • business owners
  • company directors and executives
  • designers
  • manufacturers
  • importers
  • suppliers
  • workers
  • other persons in the workplace.

What business insurance cover applies if a welder develops cancer?

While workers compensation policy claims may differ from state to state, they must be made in accordance with relevant health and safety regulations.

Business owners would be well advised to check the terms and exclusion in their management liability insurance cover as well.

How Gallagher can help businesses with welding fumes risks

Workers, contractors and employers in industry sectors that use welding processes, from manufacturing to automotive repairs, stand to be affected by welding fumes risk. An experienced insurance broker can help you understand how you need to respond in order to protect yourself, your workers and your business.

For proactive guidance and support our locally focused but nationally resourced Gallagher Workplace Risk management specialists also provide workplace risk advisory services to clients through our dedicated team of consultants. The scope of assistance spans completing operational risk assessments of those activities where welding fumes exposures may exist, air monitoring against tightening exposure standards and help with practical risk control measures that eliminate or mitigate risks from fumes.

Our workers compensation claims specialists can provide guidance and advice on the nature of your work and potential impacts of compensable claims or premium rate movements.

The Gallagher Workplace Risk team can also deliver bespoke education and training programs (online or face to face) that improve workforce engagement on the known issues and industry best practice controls.

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