We can be exposed to fumes in many locations and from different jobs. This is because there are many products that we use that can create fumes. From paint and bleach to welding rods and gasoline, you need to be aware of the hazards that exist from fumes, the symptoms to watch for exposure and how to limit that exposure. Fume hazards, like any hazard, need to be controlled. For the purpose of this blog, I am including vapor and mists under the general heading of fumes.
What are the Hazards?
Fumes are defined as any smoke like or vaporous exhalation from matter or substance, especially of an odorous or harmful nature. The hazards will vary depending on the source. The first hazard is created by breathing in the fumes. The affect of this can range from headaches to breathing problems, such as asthma, to death. When I was in college doing my safety course, the small engine repair shop was just down the hall. One day they had taken apart a lawn mower engine that had some old gasoline and the fumes filled the hallway. One of my classmates had to leave because the fumes were making him sick. I’ve also had paint fumes aggravate my migraine problem.
Related to breathing in fumes, especially those created by heating metal, is lung disease. When a substance is heated and cooled quickly. Conditions such as metal or polymer fume fever can result. Workers who have these conditions experience breathing problems, cough, fever and muscle aches.
Another hazard created by fumes is an explosion hazard. We saw this recently in Nova Scotia when a paint booth that was not properly ventilated exploded, killing the worker inside. Fumes created by chemicals such as paint and gasoline are explosive. A small spark can ignite the fumes very easily.
Industries Where Fume Hazards are Common
Fume hazards can be found in any work environment. Even fumes from furnace oil can affect nursing homes if there is a leak and they become airborne. Here are some of the most common causes of fumes in work settings.
- Paint- as listed above, paint can cause both explosions and breathing problems.
- Mechanic Shops- fuel, such as gasoline and diesel, creates breathing and explosion hazards. Lead fumes can lead to chronic poisoning and diesel fumes can cause lung cancer
- Welding- while varying on the materials be worked on, all welding fumes will contain metallic oxides, silicates, fluorides. The coating on the metal will also affect the fumes, with some having a toxic effect, such as galvanized steel
- Manufacturing of rubber and plastics- when rubber is heated and vulcanized, fumes are created. There are also fumes created from the benzene used.
- Chemicals, such as cleaners- some chemicals, even household cleaners and pool chemicals, can cause chemical pneumontis, an inflammation of the lungs. The symptoms are cough, pain in chest and throat, nausea and frequent cold and infections
Proper ventilation is the best way to reduce fume hazards. A vent system prevents the fumes from building up, reducing the risk of explosions and making breathing easier. Specially designed explosion proof fume hood systems remove the fumes from a space, such as a paint booth or welding shop. In confined spaces, a ventilation system is used to remove the fumes that were in the space, or to add fresh air to allow workers to breathe.
Respirators are also used to make breathing safer. There are two kinds that can be used. In environments where the fumes are minor, a respirator with a filter can be used. Filters are designed to handle certain chemicals so you must be sure the filter you have meets the requirement of the chemical. These types of respirator can either cover all or half or the worker’s face.
The other type of respirator is a self contained breathing apparatus. This is similar to what a firefighter would wear. A face mask is connected via hose to a tank or air compressor. This ensures that the worker has clean air to breathe and does not have to worry about the fumes as much. Full-face masks are typically used for SCBA’s.
Fume hazards pose a risk to workers whether they are exposed to them for short or long periods of time. You need to be aware of the hazards that the fumes a worker is exposed to and be prepared to deal with the consequences. The first step in first aid is to remove the victim to fresh air, and it may be necessary to use air from a tank to give them air. Explosive fumes must be monitored and reduced. Proper ventilation is the key to reducing injury from explosions. If the work your company does creates fumes, make sure that you are monitoring what is happening. Plan to stay safe.