Mild steel welding fume reclassified as a human carcinogen

Mild steel welding fume reclassified as a human carcinogen

As a result of The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) releasing new scientific evidence that exposure to mild steel welding fume can cause lung cancer and possibly kidney cancer in humans, mild steel welding fume has been reclassified as a human carcinogen by the Workplace Health Expert Committee.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has released a safety alert for those undertaking welding activities, including mild steel, in any industry. In order to protect workers, the HSE is strengthening their enforcement of cancer-causing welding fumes with immediate effect.

When SHP first published the news, it was widely shared amongst readers and, understandably, generated a fair few questions. We put your questions to the HSE:

Does the enforcement apply to just welding or mild steel cutting as well?

“The specific change in enforcement expectation approved by the Regulatory Committee applies to welding processes which is what the IARC research addresses; however, the fumes produced during the cutting process are likely to be very similar to those during welding, and in some situations at a higher volume. Therefore, duty holders will need to assess the risk of what is being produced and control exposure as required.

“HSE’s Construction Division is producing a briefing which will state: Prior to the change, duty holders would have had to assess the risk and put in appropriate controls depending on what they were cutting up and how coated it was with contaminants. However, the expectation in relation to these controls and any enforcement action has increased in line with that for mild steel – effectively from the same date.”

What is the HSE doing to enforce it?

“Inspectors will be discussing the control of exposure to welding fume during any Inspections where they find it occurs with immediate effect and there will be a specific Inspection Campaign for fabricated metal premises in Q4 where this topic will be addressed specifically.”

How can workers ensure they are working with an acceptable amount of ventilation?

“The requirement is for use of suitable local exhaust ventilation where reasonably practicable to do so, this should look to remove (ideally) all fume, where there is obvious visual residual fume further controls will be required in the form of RPE.”

Should employers now review their COSHH risk assessment?

“Yes, if they are welding mild steel and did not have any exposure controls in place previously, to ensure they provide suitable control measures going forwards.”

How you can prove who is at fault if you do suffer from exposure?

“This question is a matter of civil law; an individual would need to take legal advice form a personal injury lawyer. HSE attention would be on the criminal law and whether the individual’s current employer has and is currently managing the risk.”

People are dismissive of more legislation. Welding is about to become cumbersome. We already use the best extraction. Is that going to be enough?

“This isn’t new legislation, but it is a response to the IARC research on cancer risk when welding. There have always been requirements for control of exposure in place for a number of other metals such as stainless steel, galvanised steel, exotic metals, so this shouldn’t come as a big change for those organisations that already weld some of these types; this may be a big change for those only welding mild steel. If the extraction system currently in place is removing all visible fume at source, then they should not need any further controls.”