If you’re a welding aluminum you suit up before you get started. Helmet, gloves, boots … you protect yourself from the light and heat generated from welding. Just as important? Protecting yourself from welding fumes. Fumes are formed when a metal is heated past its boiling point, and they contain a variety of substances, depending on the material you’re working with. With the increase in aluminum usage among vehicle designs, it makes sense to take a closer look at the fumes this metal generates, plus the potential hazards.
Here’s what you need to know about aluminum welding fumes.
What’s in Them?
The exact composition of aluminum welding fumes depends on what and how you’re welding. Very small aluminum particles make up part of the mix, and according the CDC, “Aluminum welding may generate fumes consisting of fluorine, arsenic, copper, silicon, and beryllium (NIOSH 1975h and American Welding Society 1974, both as cited in ACGIH 1986/Ex. 1-3, p. 634).”
Any coating on the aluminum can add ingredients to the fume soup, too. Paint, oil and other residue will make for a poor weld and add more chemicals to the air – make sure you thoroughly clean surfaces before starting.
Ozone (O3) is another factor. Ultraviolet radiation from welding aluminum affects the oxygen in the surrounding air, producing ozone – a gas that can be harmful. All of that adds up to a risk worth exploring.
What Exactly are the Dangers?
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notes that “Respiratory and neurological effects have been observed in workers exposed to finely ground aluminum and aluminum welding fumes.” Ozone alone can cause irritation to the airways, chest tightness and more serious lung damage over longer periods of time.
What Should You do About It?
Any welder who works with aluminum regularly is taking on a certain amount of risk. OSHA recommends lessening that risk by making sure the areas where you weld are properly ventilated. Avoid welding aluminum in confined spaces and also use a fume extractor to suck those vapors away from you. Opt for one with an adjustable hood so you can position it right at the source. Also make sure your fume extractor uses a high-quality filter so you know its effectively clearing out the toxins from the air. (And don’t forget to change it regularly.)
Anyone who welds aluminum can potentially be exposed to these risks, but it’s particularly an issue for those who work with aluminum often. The health effects are compounded over time, so exposure over many months or years adds to the risk. As more vehicle manufacturers use aluminum in their designs, that compounding factor will come into play for more and more auto body repair shops.
Most auto body techs and shop managers know that it’s important to keep up to speed with the latest aluminum welding equipment, but some people think that starts and stops with a welder. Make sure you’re fully prepared to work with aluminum by investing in proper protective equipment, as well.
Dig deeper into aluminum repair with our guide to aluminum industry terms.