Safe Work Australia reduces exposure standard for welding fumes

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Work Health and Safety Ministers have agreed to an immediate reduction to the workplace exposure standard for welding fumes (not otherwise classified) has been reduced from an 8-hour time weighted average (TWA) of 5 mg/m3 to 1 mg/m3.

The change to the workplace exposure standard become mandatory once implemented in the WHS/OHS laws in the Commonwealth, states and territories.

Welding processes are common across many industries, including construction and manufacturing. Workers who are exposed to welding fumes can develop occupational lung diseases including lung cancer.

Under the model WHS laws, persons conducting a business or undertaking – like an employer,  must eliminate or minimise the risks to worker health and safety so far as is reasonably practicable, including those associated with chemical exposure.

A PCBU must also ensure that workers are not exposed to any airborne contaminant above the concentration listed in the Workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants.

Welding fumes are a complex mix of hazardous chemicals. Some individual components of welding fumes also have their own standards. In addition to ensuring workers’ exposure to total welding fumes is below the workplace exposure standard, PCBUs must ensure workers’ exposure to individual welding fume components is below those respective workplace exposure standard also.

Regulators also urged employers to assess their control measures for managing welding fumes as nationwide exposure standards are tightened.

WorkSafe Victoria said workers who are exposed to welding fumes can suffer a number of short and long-term health effects ranging from eye and respiratory irritation to asthma, metal fume fever, nervous system damage and lung and kidney cancer.
Since 2019, three Victorian workers have died due to disease caused by welding fumes.

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations, the regulator said employers are required to control the risk of hazardous substances, including airborne contaminants such as welding fumes, and ensure that workers and others in a workplace are not exposed to levels above any relevant exposure standard.

The regulator said employers should minimise exposure to welding fumes firstly by eliminating, substituting or modifying the welding process, followed by using ventilation controls such as on torch extraction or local exhaust ventilation and lastly respiratory protection if exposure is still likely to be above the exposure standard.

Atmospheric monitoring must be carried out when employers are unsure if a relevant exposure standard is being exceeded, or where there may be a risk to health.

Health monitoring may also be required if workers are exposed to certain substances specified by the OHS Regulations that are likely to cause them harm.

The model Code of Practice: welding processes provides guidance to help manage the risks associated with welding, including exposure to welding fumes.