Metal fume fever is a respiratory condition which anyone working with welding equipment should be both aware of and protected against.
It’s primarily caused by breathing in fumes created by superheating metals coated in or containing zinc (but other metals cause it too), and can make workers feel incredibly ill. With prolonged and repeated exposure, metal fume fever can even be fatal.
Thankfully metal fume fever is also a problem that’s well known about, and typically well-guarded against. But if you’re just setting up a metalworking space, or simply want to know how to reduce your chances of metal fume fever, read on.
What metal fume fever is and how to prevent it
As mentioned, the metal that causes most cases of metal fume fever is zinc. That’s mainly because zinc has an unusually low boiling point of 907°C. When added to molten copper, which boils at 1083°C, you get gaseous zinc oxide which workers without adequate protective equipment are liable to breathe in.
But zinc isn’t the only metal that causes metal fume fever. Steel, cadmium, lead, iron, aluminium, titanium and more can give off fumes leading to the condition.
But what does that condition look like?
Symptoms of metal fume fever
Metal fume fever can often start with a metallic taste in the mouth and a headache but can develop into a whole array of flu-like symptoms, including:
- Chest pain
- Dry cough
- Irritated or sore throat
- Malaise (a general feeling of discomfort and unease)
- And myalgia (muscle pain).
At this stage, metal fume fever can also cause leucocytosis, where the white blood cell count is above the body’s normal range.
If it progresses – usually from a worker continuously working in a poorly protected metalworking environment – the toxicity of metal fume fever can become even more severe. Even life-threatening. Those symptoms can include:
- A burning sensation in the body
- Convulsions and/or collapsing
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Inability to pass water
- Low blood pressure
- Shortness of breath
- And even yellowing of the eyes or skin.
As you can see, it’s a long list of potential health problems workers can encounter if not properly protected – many of which mimic symptoms of other illnesses.
It’s, therefore, no wonder metal fume fever goes by so many other names, including brass shakes; zinc shakes, brass founders’ ague, metal dust fever, welding shivers, galvie flu and Monday morning fever.
Thankfully, metal fume fever rarely progresses to later stages, and can usually be recovered from in two to three weeks.
Of course, the best cure is prevention before the fact. Which leads us to…
How to reduce your chances of metal fume fever
Zinc fumes are categorised under EH40 under the Workplace Exposure Limits (WEL) documentation issued by the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE). These regulations give a Time Weighted Average (TWA) limit of 1mg/m3 for an eight-hour workday, and a Short-Term Exposure Limit (STEL) of 2mg/m3 over 15 minutes.
However, it’s also worth noting that metalworking fumes are a complex mix of gases, dusts and vapours borne from welding, grinding and moulding processes. Within EH40, they are therefore sub-categorised under Ferrous Foundry Particulate (FFP), which stipulates the need for air sampling to be done in order to measure such a complex mixture of fumes.
All of the above makes it clear that there is no single way to make your business compliant and protect your workers from metal fume fever. Instead, we recommend a collective approach to facilities and equipment, along with employee education and even scientific oversight.
Use comprehensive workplace PPE
Following HSE safety codes, you should provide your workforce with everything they need to protect themselves whilst metalworking. From gloves to facial protection with respiratory features and more, no factory floor should be without appropriate PPE.
Conduct specialist training
Education is essential. The more your workforce knows about the contaminates involved in their working practices and how they react with each other, the better prepared your people will be to take the necessary caution in such a dangerous environment.
Commission air sampling after a thorough risk assessment
As mentioned above you will likely need to commission an air sampling company to fully understand the chemical content of materials in your factory and the dangers those contaminates present.
You will be in a better position to judge the risks and decide if you do need air sampling, after performing your own internal Risk & COSHH Assessment. This should be your first step in defining the processes you need to put in place.
Once you’ve defined those processes, you’ll also be in the best position to educate your workforce; empowering them to help keep themselves safe from the harmful effects of metal fume fever.
Employ regulated ventilation and extraction solutions
Finally, the most significant contributor to protecting your workforce against metal fume fever is choosing the right ventilation and extraction system for your setup.
Because fume particles are smaller than dust, they don’t settle easily – meaning they can stay in the breathing zone long after being created. The right at-source extraction solution is essential for protecting your workers against fumes from all kinds of metal particles – particularly those that cause metal fume fever.
Protecting your business against metal fume fever
At VODEX, we have decades of combined experience helping metalworking businesses choose the right ventilation systems. So, if you need to protect your workforce from metal fume fever and other lung-based diseases, we can help.