Asbestos was commonly used in the welding profession for its strength and heat resistance. Welders worked with asbestos-containing tools daily and were exposed to asbestos dust during welding and grinding. Not only that, but welders faced additional asbestos exposure working in high-risk construction environments.

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Welders and Asbestos Exposure

At one time, blacksmiths welded metals by heating pieces in a forge and hammering them together. This changed when electricity brought about modern arc welding.

Arc welding involves running an electric current through metal components to produce a hot electrical short — or arc — when a welding rod strikes a seam in the metal. This generates enough heat to liquefy and melt metal parts into one piece.

American industries used billions of arc welding rods during the last century. Many welding rods contained a flux coating made from asbestos.

Welders used several welding rods per day and were exposed to asbestos dust during every project.

How Welders Were Exposed to Asbestos

Once metal joints were welded and cooled using asbestos rods, they were relatively safe unless disturbed. However, welders were exposed to enormous amounts of airborne asbestos when tiny particles detached from welding rods through smoke and dust.

Welders experienced additional asbestos exposure while smoothing out seams. The process of grinding welded metal produced dust that was full of asbestos fibers left behind from the welding rods.

Escaping asbestos exposure was next to impossible until welders stopped using asbestos-based rods in the 1980s. However, the arc welding process wasn’t the only way that welders were exposed to asbestos.

Welders’ protective equipment was also made from asbestos. Making matters worse, welders worked in dusty construction environments where other workers handled or installed asbestos-containing products.

Asbestos Products Used in Welding

The welding industry continually faced two main problems. One was insulating welders from the high temperatures produced during the welding process. The second was protecting job sites from fires caused by welding heat, flames, and sparks.

Asbestos became a frontline welding material in the 1920s because it appeared to be the ideal durable and heat-resistant solution for welding applications. For decades, welders wore gloves, coveralls, and masks containing asbestos.

Asbestos also added excellent strength to metals, especially in welding joints where materials were brittle and easily fractured. The asbestos coating also added stability and strength. As a commodity, asbestos was inexpensive and readily available.

Many welding rods contained 5% to 15% asbestos fibers, often in a flux coating. This asbestos flux made it easier to control molten welding beads as they flowed across metal surfaces.

Welder Careers

Welding is a staple task in every metal fabrication business. For over a hundred years, every company working with steel assemblies employed welders for various metal joining techniques.

Welders worked in every conceivable metal fabrication industry. An estimated half-million welders operated in American factories and metal shops every year.

The majority of welding roles involved joining steel plates, pipes, and parts. However, welders worked with many different steel types in various specializations.

The most common joint method involved heating materials to a white-hot state and applying welding rods. This created a metallurgical reaction that fused or welded the joint.

Most welders depended on the electric arc process, but many used different welding processes like oxygen-acetylene or gas welding. Other welding types employed MIG and TIG welding feeds.

Regardless, all welding roles had one thing in common: welding rods were vital to the process.

Welding is a skilled trade that follows an apprenticeship program. Most welders start as helpers and grinder operators before becoming experienced enough to get their trade qualification (TQ). This certified welders as journeymen.

Journeymen welders were employable in many industries and locations, including:

Welder Health Risks

Every welder exposed to airborne asbestos fibers faced a high risk of mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma is a fatal disease caused by inhaling microscopic asbestos fibers. These tiny fibers become lodged in the lung lining, called the pleura.

Asbestos fibers stay in the pleura forever, causing prolonged irritation and the formation of scar tissue. Eventually, this can trigger the growth of mesothelioma tumors.

Mesothelioma Symptoms Are Delayed

The first symptoms of mesothelioma can develop 20-50 years after first exposure. Often, this is long after welders have retired.

A welder’s risk of developing mesothelioma depends on the amount of asbestos they were exposed to and the duration of their exposure. Unfortunately, welders who worked during the mid-to-late 20th century were frequently exposed to airborne asbestos.

Help for Mesothelioma Victims

Welders who developed mesothelioma through workplace asbestos exposure are eligible for legal compensation for their lost income and medical expenses. Punitive damages against negligent asbestos suppliers are also available.

Families of mesothelioma victims are eligible to make claims for their ill members and may file lawsuits for wrongful death cases.

Our Justice Support Team helps welders with mesothelioma seek justice. Learn about the ways we can help.

Author:Stephanie Kidd

Editor-in-Chief of the Mesothelioma Justice Network

Stephanie Kidd

Stephanie Kidd works tirelessly as a dedicated advocate for the vulnerable and underrepresented. Stephanie worked as a copywriter for an agency whose focus was communicating safety procedures on construction work sites. With her extensive background in victim advocacy and a dedication to seeing justice done, Stephanie works hard to ensure that all online content is reliable, truthful and helpful.

Last modified: September 5, 2019

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