At one time, blacksmiths welded metals by heating pieces in a forge and hammering them together. That changed when electricity brought about modern arc welding. This new process ran electric current through the metal components and produced a hot electrical short or arc when a welding rod electrode struck at a seam. The electrode liquefied and melted the parts into one piece.
American industries used billions of arc welding rods during the last century. Many welding rods contained an asbestos coating and internal flux that gave off asbestos-laced smoke and dust. This exposure to airborne asbestos fibers placed welders in the highest risk group for developing a deadly lung cancer disease called mesothelioma.
Welder Roles and Responsibilities
Welders worked in every conceivable metal fabrication industry. An estimated half-million welders operated in American factories and metal shops every year since statistical records began. Most welding roles involved joining steel plates, pipes and parts. However, there are many different steel types and special welding requirements.
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, but all had one thing in common. Welding rods were vital to the process, and escaping asbestos exposure was next to impossible until welders stopped striking asbestos-based rods in the 1980s.
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 or TQ.
That qualification certified them as journeymen welders, employable in a wide range of industries and locations, including:
- Shipyards and dry-dock refitting yards.
- Aviation and aerospace.
- Automotive assembly plants.
- Bridge and steel building construction.
- Power plants and oil refineries.
- High-pressure pipeline and underwater welding.
- Railroad shops, rolling-stock yards and right-of-way tracks.
Welders and Asbestos Exposure
Asbestos became a front-line welding material in the 1920s and appeared to be the ideal additive to metal to support welders. The industry continually faced two main problems. One was insulating welders from high temperatures produced in the process. The second was protecting job sites from fires caused by welding heat, flames and sparks.
Asbestos added excellent strength to metals, especially in the welding joints where materials were brittle and easily fractured. Many welding rods contained 5 to 15 percent asbestos fibers. This asbestos flux made flowing welding beads across metal surfaces manageable and added stability and strength. As a commodity, asbestos was inexpensive and readily available.
Once joints were welded and cooled using asbestos rods, they were relatively safe unless disturbed. But welders faced enormous amounts of airborne asbestos exposure when tiny particles detached from welding rods through smoke and dust. Welders also had additional asbestos fiber exposure from grinding residue while smoothing out seams.
Asbestos exposure from hot arc welding wasn’t the only health risk to professional welders. Workers’ protective equipment was also asbestos-made. Fire and burn protection was crucial in the welding trade, so for decades, welders wore gloves, coveralls and masks made of asbestos. Making matters worse, welders worked in dusty environments while other workers installed products containing asbestos.
Welders and Mesothelioma
Mesothelioma Justice Network Brief
Every welder using asbestos products or exposed to airborne asbestos fibers faced a high risk of developing mesothelioma. This deadly cancer is only caused by asbestos exposure and can take decades to materialize. Mesothelioma can surface anywhere from ten to fifty years after exposure. That would be long after welders have retired, without any warning of how risky their lifetime occupation was.
Mesothelioma happens after inhaling microscopic asbestos fibers. These tiny particles imbed into the lung lining which is called the mesothelium. Asbestos fibers stay in the mesothelium forever. Eventually, scar tissue from asbestos irritation turns into tumors and result in a fatal disease. The risk of developing mesothelioma depends partly on the amount of asbestos exposure a welder had and the duration of the exposure.
Compensation for Welders with Mesothelioma
Welders who developed mesothelioma through workplace asbestos exposure are entitled to compensation for lost income and their medical expenses. Punitive damages against negligent asbestos suppliers are also available. Families of mesothelioma victims are eligible to make claims for ill members and may file lawsuits for wrongful death cases.