Welding is a process that is involved in all kinds of metalwork. Modern welding evolved from the blacksmithing craft of centuries ago. Blacksmiths were the original metalworkers who heated the metal and pounded it into different pieces to join them. This changed in the 20th century when electric arc welding became common.
Welders Fast Facts (BLS.gov)
- National Employment, 2018: 424.700
- Similar Occupations: Assemblers and fabricators, boilermakers, millwrights, machinists, metal and plastic machine workers
- Previously Exposed: Yes
- Still Being Exposed: Yes
- Asbestos-Related Disease Risk: High
While electric arc welding is safer than blacksmithing, it still has its dangers. One of them was that until the 1980s, most welding rods had asbestos fibers in them. Welding rods are the disposable electrodes used in arc welding. Electric arc welding is one form, but there are others, such as brazing with oxygen-acetylene heat and MIG welding that also uses rods. But electric arc welding was by far the biggest user of dangerous asbestos rods. Billions of asbestos electrodes were used over the decades until the many health dangers of asbestos exposure became known.
Welders Asbestos Exposure
Electric arc welding produces resistance in electrodes or welding rods. This process leads to a short or arc to form when the rod touched the joint. The electrodes would melt or fuse, resulting in a metal seam that was much stronger than the two original metal pieces. Many welders and cutters used dozens of welding rods per day, exposing them to asbestos dust and smoke.
Asbestos started to be added to the welding rods in the early 20th century. Manufacturers put asbestos into both the coatings and cores of the roads because it improved welding performance.
Welders also could be exposed to asbestos when they would grind fresh welds to smooth them. The grinding dust was full of asbestos powder left over from the rods. To make things even worse, the protective gear welders worse were made from asbestos.
Scientific Studies on Welders Asbestos Exposure
There has been one large-scale study done regarding the risks of asbestos exposure for many heavy industry groups. Industrial insulators were at the highest risk, but welders also had high levels of asbestos exposure. Researchers noted that asbestos concentrations in most work areas started to decline in the 1970s. This was when many companies began to implement new safety practices in their factories.
Also, a National Cancer Institute peritoneal mesothelioma study found a large correlation between mesothelioma and a variety of industrial work, such as welding. Another study found a major risk of esophageal cancer for welders and flame cutters exposed to asbestos.
Welders Asbestos and Mesothelioma Lawsuits
The research company RAND has estimated that companies from 90% of industrial occupations have been sued in asbestos lawsuits.
In one case, a welder got a $1.3 million verdict against the Hobart Brothers Company, which was a manufacturer of welding rods that contained asbestos. For almost 30 years, the worker used the rods to weld electric arcs in metal fabrication. He died from lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure a month after he was diagnosed.
A similar lawsuit involved a former welder named Don Perman. For 10 years, he worked with various products that contained asbestos at American Sheet Metal. He also wore protective gear with asbestos in it. He died before his case went to trial.
Many welders and other industrial workers have filed asbestos lawsuits, but some have gone for workers’ compensation claims instead. In one case, a millwright testified that responsibilities in his work exposed him to asbestos. He said that dust contaminated his workspace as he welded metals and assembled gaskets made from asbestos. He was diagnosed with lung cancer and asbestosis. His worker’s comp claim was granted on appeal.
Some of the companies that produced products that contained asbestos, some of which were used in welding, include Vulcan Iron Works, Eastern Refractories Company, AK Steel Corp., Westinghouse, and Afton Pumps.