Welding is a high-needs profession.  Employers must deal with the safety concerns created by an employee’s welding activity and ensure compliance with the most recent Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations to avoid fines or other legal liability. Recently, OSHA updated regulations regarding some of the more dangerous chemical compounds used in welding work, and  employers should review their safety procedures to ensure compliance.

If not properly protected, welders may be exposed to chemical compounds that can cause serious and widely varying health problems. These health risks can include lung cancer and other respiratory issues, occupational asthma, eye damage, hearing loss, kidney damage, liver damage, asthma, eye irritation and damage, perforated eardrums, respiratory irritation, kidney damage, liver damage, pulmonary congestion and edema, upper abdominal pain, nose irritation and damage, skin irritation, and erosion and discoloration of the teeth.

One chemical compound of special concern to OSHA is hexavalent chromium.  Hexavalent Chromium is highly reactive and will often rapidly combine with atmospheric oxygen during the welding process.  Exposure results when working with stainless steel and other steel alloys, normally when applying various surface coatings to steel. OSHA advises that an employer review the Material Safety Data Sheets they are required to have available at the work site for welding consumables to determine if the Chromium element (that may be converted to Hexavalent Chromium during the welding process) is present in the welding consumables. This employer safety review can help protect welders from exposure to Hexavalent Chromium. 

OSHA recently adopted a new Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) for Hexavalent Chromium. Currently, if the employer knows that a material or specific welding process will contain chromium, the employer must ensure that welders are not  exposed to an airborne concentration of five micrograms per cubic meter of air (5µg/m3) over an eight- hour time-weighted average.  29 CFR 1910.1026.  Employers need to perform their own monitoring to ensure the exposure falls within the acceptable limits, with OSHA requiring varying levels of monitoring depending on the results of the initial testing.

OSHA will enforce these regulations via on-site inspections.  The OSHA inspectors will conduct their own ambient air monitoring and testing for Hexavalent Chromium exposure to employees while they perform their welding activities.  However, if the employer has already conducted proper monitoring and testing with documented results available to OSHA for review and inspection, OSHA will forego its own on-site monitoring and testing.  An employer runs the risk of being cited by OSHA for not conducting its own on-site monitoring and testing for Hexavalent Chromium exposure to employees.

To ensure compliance and short circuit an OSHA inspection, an employer will need to hire an outside expert to perform the required ambient air monitoring and testing.  High concentration detection will require that the employer implement solutions in the workplace to reduce employee exposure to Hexavalent Chromium to acceptable exposure levels, likely focusing on proper controlled ventilation and adequate air movement in the affected work area. 

Employer liability due to hexavalent chromium is not limited to OSHA violations. Workers’ compensation is another area where substantial liability can arise due to the compound, but severe liability can arise in general negligence lawsuits as well. Whereas employees are normally limited to workers’ compensation for litigating workplace injuries, this is not true in all states. For example, in Iowa, an employee may sue his/her employer and any company employees who have committed “gross negligence” resulting in harm or injury to that employee in addition to receiving workers’ compensation benefits.  An employer’s decision not to comply with OSHA regulations concerning employee exposure to Hexavalent Chromium in the workplace may open a Pandora’s Box of liability nightmares in addition to the strong arm of enforcement pursued by OSHA.

Hexavalent Chromium is a dangerous compound that can seriously harm employees in the workplace resulting in significant liability for employers.  If you have any questions on hexavalent chromium or OSHA regulations generally, contact a Goosmann attorney today!


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