In February 2021, HSE revealed that it plans to inspect engineering premises from May to September 2021 focussing on the health hazards presented by occupational exposure to welding fumes and metalworking fluid over a prolonged period. Over exposure to these substances may cause workers to develop, amongst others, hypersensitive pneumonitis, a serious and irreversible respiratory illness.
In the UK alone, it is estimated that exposure to welding fume causes in excess of 150 deaths due to cancer every year, while around 40 to 50 welders are hospitalised annually with pneumonia due to inhaling metal fumes, according to HSE.
In preparation for potential HSE inspections, Bureau Veritas says the engineering sector must have the right occupational hygiene programme in place, with a clear emphasis on workplace air monitoring assessments.
Joe Marais, engineering team leader – occupational hygiene & storage equipment at Bureau Veritas, comments: “Welding fume and metalworking fluid exposure can pose a number of risks to employees in the engineering environment, from the potentially harmful fumes and gasses emitted during the welding process, to dust, noise, vibration and UV radiation from allied processes such as plasma cutting, arc air gouging, burning, and grinding.
“The risks to employee’s health from these exposures can in many cases be prevented or at least adequately controlled. Hence, facing potential inspections from the HSE, it’s never been more important for manufacturers to assess exposure levels in line with workplace health and safety legislation. A key part of putting the necessary measures in place is workplace air monitoring assessments. These can provide the invaluable data and insight required to control exposure to welding fumes and metalworking fluids.”
Prior to 2003, a workplace exposure limit (WEL) of 1.0 mg/m3 was in place for metalworking fluid, however this limit was withdrawn by the HSE due to the fact that even at levels well below this limit significant amounts of ill health was being reported. The advisory committee on toxic substances concluded that it was not possible to establish a ‘no adverse effect’ level for exposure to metalworking fluid. A WEL has therefore not been set by the HSE for exposure to metalworking fluid. It has stated that cases of occupational asthma were occurring when concentrations of metalworking fluid in the working atmosphere were generally found below 1.0 mg/m3.
Instead, Bureau Veritas advises businesses to quantitively assess metalworking fluid exposure against the NIOSH recommended exposure limit (REL) of 0.5 mg/m3, as well as a qualitative assessment of exposure control.
Marais advises: “When it comes to having a robust occupational hygiene programme, there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. We’ve worked with engineering firms in the automotive sector where after a workplace air monitoring survey we were able to tighten their compliance procedures by giving advice on how to use existing exposure control measures more effectively, such as local exhaust ventilation systems.
“We would therefore encourage manufacturers to review their existing occupational hygiene programme to ensure it goes beyond simple compliance and includes a continuous improvement action plan to reduce the risks to employee health from exposure to hazardous substances.
“By taking steps such as ensuring that testing of local exhaust ventilation systems are carried out in accordance with industry guide HSG 258, and effectively communicating to employees what control measures they need to use and why, employers can safeguard employee wellbeing and ultimately save lives.”