Fume Hazards Can Menace Outdoor Workers, Too

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COHP, University of Massachusetts Lowell

Summary Statement

Describes the dangers that welding fumes can cause when welding outside, depending on wind and other conditions.

It is well known that fumes generated from arc welding operations expose welders and those around them to serious respiratory hazards. This is pretty easy to see when a welding job is done in a shop or other "indoor" setting. If there is not adequate ventilation, the whole area quickly fills up with the familiar bluish gray fumes.

However, it is much harder to know when "outdoor" welders on construction sites are being exposed to fume hazards. Pile Driver welders work in a wider variety of weather extremes and often in confined spaces where a fixed ventilation system just isn't feasible.

For example, a Pile Driver welding shut piling to a falsework system out in the Fort Point Channel may appear to have no exposure risk at all. Most people will assume the prevailing winds will blow the fumes away. But the welder will often be down wind of the arc, and the sheeting wall may create a "wind eddy" when the fumes collect and settle around the welder.

‘Welders should . . . use existing wind conditions to their advantage when possible'

In that situation, the welder should have a suitable face respirator which can be used as needed.

The installation of strut-and-wale bracing systems in coffer dams or on the Central Artery "open cuts" also creates hazardous outdoor fume environments. Typically, the space between the bottom of an excavation and the waler will be between 18 and 36 inches. Additionally, the waler itself may be 36 inches wide, and this creates a pocket with very little air flow. Pile Drivers performing overhead welding beneath the walers are very quickly exposed to high levels of fumes.

In this situation, the absence of any wind at all means that a portable blower/extractor may be the best way to remove the fumes. Once again, each welder should be provided with a suitable personal respirator.

Lastly, but not to be overlooked, welders should avoid working "close in"" to the arc and use existing wind conditions to their advantage when possible. These precautions, along with appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), can make a huge difference in fume exposure over the course of a career.

Borrus is with Massachusetts Pile Drivers Local Union 56