According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2006 there were approximately 462,000 welding, soldiering, and brazing workers. The occupation was expected to grow only about five percent between the years 2006 and 2016. Aside from the fact that employment for welders is expected to “grow more slowly than average,” job availability for welders remains optimistic due to employers’ reports of inability to find qualified welders. But, while welders can rest easy that there are still jobs available in this tough market, there remains a dark side to the trade.
Manganese, a toxic metal, is contained in welding fumes, which can cause parkinsonism. Parkinsonism is a neurological syndrome that is characterized by tremors (involuntary muscle movement), hypokinesia (diminished movement of body muscles), rigidity (muscles tighten), and postural instability (sensation of instability).
Manganese is a naturally occurring element that is required for animals and humans to function normally, and exposure to low levels of manganese in the diet is essential to maintaining good health in humans. The average daily intake of manganese through food is between 1 and 5 milligrams per day.
Those welders affected have trouble completing everyday tasks such as driving, eating, and brushing their teeth. What were once mundane tasks have now become the most mentally taxing.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) state that there is evidence that the brain damage caused by manganese in welding fumes can result in a greater incidence of speech impairment, tremors, and gait disturbances among welders when compared to non-welders.
Due to welders’ exposure to toxic fumes, this makes the welding industry a prime target for litigation. Lawsuits, which began in the late 1970s, hardly put a dent in the $5 billion welding-products industry due to the fact that there was no reliable scientific data proving that welding fumes, or manganese in the fumes, caused parkinsonism.
In December of 2007, a U.S. District Court Judge, Kathleen O’Malley, ordered the disclosure of welding industry payments to researchers studying the effects of manganese on welders. The order resulted in the revelation that welding companies had paid $12.5 million to 25 organizations and 33 researches. Nearly all of these researchers and organizations published findings dismissing connections between welding fumes and welder complaints. In a 2003case, and Illinois jury awarded a $1 million verdict to a welder, which resulted in a large influx of lawsuits targeted at welding companies. Again in 2005, a case stemming from a Shipyard in Mississippi settled for seven figures.
According to an article published in November, welding fumes could be the next asbestos.