Had an interesting phone call this week. A welder who’s been plying his trade for 18 years called to talk about some job-related health concerns he has. He called me because of an article I wrote eight years ago: “Welding fume health hazards.” Since the article was written, various class-action lawsuits against consumable manufacturers have wound their way through the courts, most of which have been resolved in favor of the defendants. Also since then, several welders, like the one who called this week, have shared their concerns with me. In each case, I have told the welders that I am not a doctor, and they should schedule appointments with their physicians to discuss their concerns. Each time, I have listened to their concerns and worried about them long after the call ended.
This call was a little different than the others. Where others simply had described various ailments they felt might be attributed to their occupation, Chet (not his real name) mentioned something none of the others described.
Chet works for a refinery in Texas. According to Chet, Big Oil (not the company’s name), doesn’t treat its welders very well, but that’s the subject for a book Chet’s thinking about writing and not the topic of our conversation.
It seems that Chet was talking with a welder from another company who mentioned he had just gotten his blood test results and asked Chet about his. Chet had no idea what the man was talking about and said, “What blood tests?”
Chet’s friend said that the company he works for provides routine blood tests for its employees to check for levels of certain elements involved in the welding process, elements such as manganese, chromium VI, zinc, and cadmium. Apparently, this friend’s employer uses the test results to determine whether it’s safe for a welder to work on the next project. Chet wondered if the blood tests were a widespread precaution and whether his employer was obligated to conduct tests.
Nothing that I read when preparing the 2004 article mentioned a blood testing requirement. A Google search of “blood tests required for welders” yielded many results, including this one from OSHA that describes safety and health guidelines for welders and other workers exposed to lead. For these workers, “Initial monitoring may be limited to a representative sample of those employees exposed to the greatest concentrations of airborne lead.” The results for this representative group can determine if others will be tested. Unless I’m missing something, nowhere does it say that all welders must be tested.
A later article on thefabricator.com, “Welder health and safety – Who’s responsible?” touched on the subject of blood tests. This article, based on feedback to a “Welding Wire” e-newsletter, included these comments from a subscriber who worked for a company that provides motion control, flow control, and metal treatment products and services. He wrote, “I am aware of many articles addressing the welders' exposure health risks, and I am of the opinion that the responsibility for the health and safety of people in or related to the welding industry lies jointly between manufacturers, manufacturing management, welders, welding operators, and the U.S. government. [These articles include those] related to the possibility that nickel, chrome, and cobalt ingested through welding smoke may be hazardous to your health. These warnings must be brought to the table and dealt with for everyone's safety.”
The subscriber continued, “Manufacturers feel if they submit the material safety data sheets (MSDS), the action is sufficient to alert the general public of any hazards the product may hold. In real life, these documents are [provided] to the worker compiled in a three-ring binder and placed in the work area; stored on the company computer system at the supervisor's office; or kept in the safety department files. They are not deciphered into practical, understandable words for each level of employee. They are not relayed to the worker through workplace meetings and are not reviewed with the welders when an addendum is received. They are just placed in an area that relieves the criteria of making them accessible to all parties.”
The subscriber went on to say that employers are equally responsible, and he reiterated what he perceives to be the dismal handling of the MSDS. “I have seen these binders ... usually covered with dust and in an area easily overlooked. The employer spends more time and resources on drug/alcohol screening than on periodic blood tests for welders.”
So, I’ve concluded from my conversation with Chet, “Welding Wire” feedback, and my Google search that there is no official requirement that welders have routine blood tests. To verify my conclusion, I turned to my welding expert, Carl Smith, who also is a metallurgy expert. I told Carl about Chet’s call. Here’s what Carl had to say on the topic:
“On the subject of blood testing, some companies have been involved in litigations concerning manganese and chromium VI. Some of these cases have been in favor of the plaintiff, but most of them have been in favor of the defendant.
“It would be wise for both the welder to have and the company to provide occasional blood tests, especially for these elements. The Cr VI has been proven to cause lung and skin problems.It has not yet been proven that the Mn causes carpal tunnel syndrome, but there are still some cases pending.
“These are the most common litigations, but zinc and cadmium are two others that are worth considering. Phosgene gas is produced when these two metals are heated to the melting point or welded. This may cause several problems. It is believed that Zn not only affects the lungs and blood, but even eyesight. Reports have been published, but I have been unable to verify the complete accuracy of the research.
“Some of these things are dreamed up by litigators, but some are real.”
If I was a welder and my company did not provide screening blood tests, I likely would opt for one on my own, but that’s my opinion without knowing the cost of such tests. At the very least, I would discuss my concerns with my physician, which is what I advised Chet to do. Better to be safe than sorry.
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