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Every breath you take

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The fumes produced through welding are now a category 1 carcinogen. This breakthrough, recently announced by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, is about to send shockwaves through the industry. Behind the scenes an organisation is already campaigning to stop people dying from cancer.


It’s hard to get your head around 13,000 people dying each year because contaminants carried by the air they breathed in killed them at work. Yet, that is the situation today. And although there appears to be plentiful information on the problem, it has not disappeared — each year HSE statistics return the same verdict: deaths from ill health remain the same.

Deaths from breathing-related illnesses remain the cause of 90 per cent of all the ill health cases that HSE records. Campaigns that raise awareness of these numbers and the dangers are welcome. Campaigns that try to do something to change the situation are doubly so.

Breathe Freely is one such campaign, run by the Chartered Society for Worker Health Protection (BOHS), which aims to give employers the tools and information they need to prevent occupational lung disease in their workers. It began in construction in 2015 and is now preparing the offshoot, a campaign targeting welding in manufacturing. We went to Harrogate to meet the past president of BOHS, Mike Slater, to find out more about it ahead of the official launch.

New cancer risks

“We can’t do everything. We’ve got limited resources and we need to target,” says Mike of BOHS’s approach. Welding in manufacturing was chosen as the follow up to construction for several reasons. Firstly, it is estimated that 152 welders die every year due to exposure to fumes – the most lethal by-product of welding, according to HSE statistics based on the seminal 2012 study by Dr Lesley Rushton. The hazards are also coming more to the fore thanks to a new classification from International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

Just two days before we met Mike, the IARC reclassified welding fume as a category 1 carcinogen, making it a definite cause of cancer (it was previously 2b, which means only that it ‘can cause’ cancer). It has been a controversial decision, because there are so many types of welding and it’s not clear that each is carcinogenic. But, says Mike: “The fact is that they’re looking from the perspective that welders are at a higher risk of cancer, and welders will do all types of welding, so if you’re a welder, it’s a high risk of cancer.”

Despite the development of automated technologies in welding, the processes principally invented during the first and second world wars to make machinery, are still common today. These include manual metal arc welding (MMA), metal active gas (MAG), Tungsten Inert Gas (TIG) and submerged-arc welding (SAW). Whatever the type of welding, it refers to the process of joining materials by fusion or coalescence of the interface. It involves bringing two surfaces together, using pressure or temperature which allows bonding to occur at the atomic level. During this action, gases and fumes are emitted. “The welding arc, like a giant spark, is a lot of UV radiation produced, which itself is a health hazard, but one of the by-products of that is that the oxygen in the air, which is O2, is transformed into ozone, which is O3. And ozone is a very toxic gas,” explains Mike.

Dangerous smoke

But the campaign is targeting welding fume, a toxic smoke that has properties similar to diesel fumes in that it is made up of very fine particles that can be inhaled and reach the lung. But the benefit is its sheer visibility makes it a clear problem to target. “You have a look at a welding operation, it looks like smoke. It’s very, very fine particles of metal oxide,” says Mike. This ‘smoke’ from welding with steel, iron, manganese, nickel, or chromium can cause cancers, asthma, emphysema, bronchitis, metal fume fever – a sort of flu – and “a whole raft of diseases in addition.”

There’s still a huge lack of awareness of the risks and even where there is, the control methods used are often not the right ones for the job, says Mike. It’s key to what Breathe Freely is trying to do. “We want to make people aware first of all there’s a problem and why they need to be concerned about welding fume and why they need controls,” he says. “But we don’t just want to tell people about problems. We don’t just want to hold our heads and say oh, this is awful, isn’t it? What we want to do is say: look, there’s a problem, but here are some solutions.”

Control measures

To appreciate the challenge of the twofold objective, we need to look at where welding is done. The IARC says: “Welding can be carried out in almost any setting, including under water. It is often carried out on benches in engineering workshops, but much structural welding is done outdoors; ships, boilers, tanks and pipes require welding in confined spaces.” So there are a variety of situations and these require different control methods and for the employer to know what control method that should be.

Mike explains: “There are some companies that do put good control measures in, but it’s not that common.” The two main types of protection for welding fume are personal protection equipment and extraction and he describes a typical scenario of how these might be misapplied. “If you’ve got a very big structure like a fabrication for a construction site, then you’re welding [in various places and on the move]. They’re never going to move a portable extractor. Can you imagine people doing that?”
He says there are better alternatives that need to be communicated to employers and that they need to buy in the right equipment – for example: “You can actually have extraction that’s built into the welding torch. It’s actually built into it, so as they move along it’s going with it,” he says with the scientist’s eagerness for logic.

The challenges BOHS faces are in getting people to embrace change. “People find objections every time you want change, but there’s ways to make sure these things work and overcome those problems.” He believes it’s about investing in the right control measures. “At the end of the day these things are not rocket science, and they’re not overly expensive. But if you buy equipment and it’s not the right thing and you’ve spent a thousand pounds on a piece of kit and maybe several of these, and then they’re sat in the corner because nobody’s using them, you’ve just wasted your money, haven’t you?”

Ways with words

Chartered occupational hygienists have at least seven years’ training in the field. It means that all the advice produced by the team at BOHS has the benefit of tremendous experience. But turning that into effective communication on risk has been the biggest challenge. “We’re scientists, and therefore we talk jargon. You can’t help it, can you? I’m sure journalists are the same. You have your jargon, and politicians are all the same.” They, therefore, had to siphon out the scientific inflections – long term disease instead of long latency, is an example that crops up – in order to get the full impact on their audience. “It’s not about being patronising but, if you want to get your message across to people, you have to talk in the language that they can relate to”.

The materials freely available on the website are purposely brief – two sided factsheets and a managers toolkit that includes checklists to use on site inspection that identify the key problems, as examples. Roadshows have been held for Breathe Freely in Construction and they are planning the same for the welding initiative with meetings planned for up and down the country. A growing list of sponsors will help them target employers outside the reach of BOHS. The stakeholders will also enable them to find out more about where the problems are felt.

Wide audience

Reaching the audience most in need of Breathe Freely’s advice will be the other major challenge. There are 200,000 welders in the UK, estimated by HSE and IARC. They may work for big employers, like JCB, BAE Systems, Toyota, where a “lot of welding goes on,” companies who bring welding contractors in, or SMEs who are “very hard to reach”. Others weld in garages or workshops as part of general maintenance work, says Mike.

But, similarly to construction, the large firms are the means to reach the smaller. “With construction we started with the big boys and now we’re working further and further down the supply chain. Within six months of the campaign launch we were reaching smaller companies.” They will work with partners including the TUC, the Welding Institute, a number of major manufacturers and the EEF, who first came to BOHS to highlight the concerns they had over welding in manufacturing, in order to reach their audiences. It is firmly squared at the employer because: “If we educate workers to say there’s a problem with welding they don’t have the power to buy the equipment. The people who’ve got the power to do that are the employer. So our message is at the employer, to get them to understand.”

With workers dying from fumes and contaminated air each year in welding, and with the dramatic news from IARC, clearly the campaign must succeed. Must succeed but by no means guaranteed to do so. We know the barriers are powerful, yet with Mike’s passionate advocacy of the campaign, there is a chance of success. “It would be a simplification to say we can completely eliminate [disease and cancer], but we can substantially reduce the number of people who are suffering from these diseases if they implement the control measures, which are readily available.”

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