Many people in the welding industry mainly worry about arc eye, which is when you burn your eye due to the welding arc.
However, you may be surprised to learn that another possible illness is prevalent amongst welding workers.
Metal fume fever is an illness that 1 in 5 welders over 30 will experience throughout their career.
If you are interested in welding or are already in the business, it is good to become familiar with the disease.
If you haven’t ever heard of metal fume fever before, don’t worry. This article will cover everything you need to know.
We will describe what metal fume fever is and what causes it. Furthermore, we will discuss what the symptoms are and how to treat the illness.
Most importantly, this article will explain how to prevent metal fume fever.
If you are ready to learn more about metal fume fever and how to stay safe, then keep reading.
What Is Metal Fume Fever?
Metal fume fever is an acute (short-term) influenza-like sickness that attacks the respiratory system. People will experience symptoms usually 3-10 hours after exposure to certain metal oxides.
There are a few different names for the illness: brass shakes, zinc shakes, galvie flu, brass founders’ ague, Monday morning fever, or Welding Shivers.
Most metal fume fever cases are mild, and people will usually recover within a few days. However, exposure to certain chemicals can induce loss of consciousness and be fatal.
The majority of those diagnosed with metal fume fever work in welding or do some sort of metal-joining/working job.
Studies have shown that about 1 in 5 welders over 30 have experienced metal fume fever at some point during their careers.
What Causes It?
Generally, many hot metalwork processes can induce metal fume fever.
Metal fume fever can occur when people inhale certain metal fumes or fine metal dust.
When some metals are heated, certain chemicals release as byproducts such as zinc oxide, magnesium oxide, or aluminum oxide.
These byproducts are the chemicals that people may inhale, which then induces metal fume fever.
A few other chemicals that can induce metal fume fever are platinum, chromium, gold, silver, arsenic, manganese, nickel, lead, cobalt, zinc, and cadmium.
The fumes that cause the illness will often come from plating, base metals, or fillers in welding.
The two processes, soldering and brazing, can also release dangerous fumes linked with lead, copper, zinc, or cadmium.
Some other welding processes that are high-risk for metal fume fever include smelting and casting alloys and working with galvanized metals.
The listed processes above are the most frequent causes of metal fume fever. However, there are a few lower-risk causes that workers can be exposed to.
- Cold sanding
- Electroplated surfaces
- Anti-corrosion paint that is rich in metal
- Lead-free ammunition
There are a few different symptoms of metal fume fever. However, the sickness will usually present itself in one of two ways: a mild illness or a serious illness.
Depending on how severe the case is, there will be different symptoms that manifest.
Mild Metal Fume Fever Case
Mild cases are normally very similar to the regular flu. Let’s see what the symptoms are.
- Loss of appetite
- Muscle aches
- Joint pain
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Change in blood pressure
On top of all of these symptoms, some people will experience an odd, metallic, or sweet taste in their mouth. This symptom can then lead to a dry or itchy throat.
Severe Metal Fume Fever Case
Even though this will be more rare, severe metal fume cases are a cause for more concern since they could lead to death. Let’s take a look at the different symptoms.
- Shortness of breath
- Burning sensation throughout the body
- Yellow eyes
- Yellow skin
- Loss of consciousness
- High/low blood pressure
In both cases, physicians will sometimes detect an increased level of white blood cells. Many patients will also have high levels of zinc in their blood plasma, skin, and urine.
Furthermore, chest X-rays will often reveal abnormalities. In some cases, patients will also experience odd lung sounds such as crackles or wheezing.
Diagnosing the Illness
Diagnosis can be a bit tricky for a few reasons. First of all, the symptoms of metal fume fever are similar to many other diseases.
When patients have respiratory problems related to the illness, physicians might incorrectly diagnose it as pneumonia or bronchitis.
Secondly, when patients describe their symptoms, they are often pretty generic and are not detailed enough to help the doctor determine the diagnosis right away.
Thirdly, the disease will only show up about 2-10 hours after the exposure to the metal. This can make it difficult to narrow down the cause.
Physicians also keep in mind that the symptoms might manifest differently depending on when they examine the patient.
For instance, if a patient is only experiencing one or two symptoms two hours after exposure, they could experience even more symptoms a few hours later.
Due to these reasons, physicians do not often diagnose the illness based on the symptoms alone. They will normally check the patient’s occupational history.
The main sign of metal fume fever is if the patient was exposed to any sort of metal fumes within the past day or two.
Tolerance to the Fever
Another fascinating thing about metal fume fever is that some welding workers build a tolerance to metal fumes.
However, this tolerance usually only lasts the workweek since it is not a long-term tolerance.
If the worker has been exposed to enough metal fumes to induce sickness, they will usually experience symptoms after they are out of the workplace for a few days, which will be the weekend.
Then, on Monday, the symptoms appear. This phenomenon is why the fever is also called the Monday Fever.
The treatment of metal fume fever primarily revolves around dealing with the symptoms. The doctor will focus on keeping the patient comfortable until the fever goes away.
There is no cure for the illness. Physicians will recommend lots of bed rest and will make sure the patient is well hydrated.
Staying away from any sort of metal fumes is also a must. Furthermore, most cases will require some sort of pain medication.
The symptoms will typically go away for mild metal fume cases within a few days, but it will take a week to recover fully.
When it comes to severe metal fume cases, the patient may have to be hospitalized. Some patients will require supplemental oxygen or even bronchodilators to help them breathe easier.
The most severe cases happen when workers have previous health conditions such as heart or lung issues. If this happens, it may take weeks to recover.
The patient will most likely need supplemental oxygen at home.
Furthermore, when a worker exposes themselves to metal fumes for the long-term, they can develop asthma as a result.
Now that we know what metal fume fever is let’s see how to prevent it. The illness is not
pleasant, but you can do a few things to avoid suffering from the disease.
Workplace Exposure Assessment
The first and most helpful step is to hire someone to conduct a careful workplace exposure assessment.
A workplace assessment will measure the level of metal fumes within different areas of the workplace. The assessment will measure metals such as zinc, chrome, copper, nickel, and manganese.
Workplace assessments will also measure fluorocarbon polymer concentrations.
After the assessment, the employer can then take the necessary steps to ensure that the workplace is safe.
Personal Protective Equipment
The next step to preventing metal fume fever is to wear personal protective equipment. Let’s take a look at what you might need.
An essential piece of equipment you will need is a respirator.
This piece of equipment will be the main thing that will save you from the Monday Fever. There are several face respirators you can buy that will come in different shapes and sizes.
Even if you are welding outside with adequate ventilation, welders should still wear respirators.
However, it is important that you only buy respirators that are certified and approved for workplace use.
Furthermore, it is crucial to wear any other protective welding gear you may have. This gear could include welding helmets, goggles, gloves, long pants, long-sleeve shirt/jacket, and closed-toe shoes.
It is worth noting that there are some welding helmets on the market with built-in respirators.
If you are someone who wears a welding mask often during the workday, this may something to consider investing in.
This preventative measure will be more up to the employer instead of the employee.
The first thing that every welding workshop should have is filtration units. These units remove all of the toxic fumes, welding smoke, and other chemicals from the air.
The unit will then return fresh, clean air to the work area.
Another system that will be effective in preventing metal fume fever is welding ventilation systems.
These systems are bigger than filtration units and can replace the local exhaust equipment.
The welding ventilation systems will remove welding dust and polluted air from the welding workspace.
The system will then bring in fresh air to keep the workplace well-ventilated.
Another way to greatly decrease the chances of metal fume fever is with education.
Employers must train workers on how to safely work in a potentially dangerous environment.
The workers should know how different chemicals react with each other and what chemical reactions can introduce certain hazards.
Employees should also be familiar with what welding processes most often result in metal fume fever.
Knowing this will encourage them to take the proper safety precautions before starting the metal-working process.
Furthermore, the workers should be familiar with all of the possible symptoms of metal fume fever.
Many doctors cannot properly diagnose the illness since the workers do not mention that they are welders (which will affect the diagnosis and treatment).
However, if the workers can spot it themselves, they will be able to receive treatment sooner.
Follow Safety Protocols
Many pieces of welding equipment will come with the manufacturer’s instructions.
Both the employers and employees should be familiar with the instructions; this information will guide them on safely running the equipment, further avoiding injury.
The workplace should also follow the safety data sheets to ensure that the workspace runs efficiently, properly, and safely.
All of the safety protocols that the workplace follows will further prevent the release or build-up of dangerous and unnecessary welding gases.
Something worth noting in this section is an old wives tale about how to prevent metal fume fever.
You may have heard of it; you may have not. The tale is that if you drink milk before welding, it will prevent metal fume fever.
The explanation is that the body will absorb the calcium in the milk and ‘fill up’ all of the spaces where dangerous fumes, such as cadmium, can fill.
However, this is no more than a fictitious tale since the milk digests through the digestive tract. When it comes to metal fumes, the gases travel through the respiratory system.
Any process that occurs in the digestive tract will not affect the respiratory system.
When trying to prevent metal fume fever (or any other workplace illness or injury), avoid relying on word-of-mouth solutions. If you take all of the precautions listed above, you will be fine.
Metal fume fever is a respiratory illness that manifests much like the regular flu. Common symptoms include nausea, shortness of breath, fever, muscle aches, chest pain, and coughing, to name a few.
Metal fume fever can either be a mild or severe disease. For mild cases, the patient will recover in about 48 hours.
However, severe metal fume fever cases can occur if a welding worker is repeatedly exposed to metal fumes or has an underlying health condition.
In these instances, the patient may have to be hospitalized. The doctors will usually administer supplemental oxygen to help them with breathing.
You can do a few things to prevent metal fume fever, including wearing personal protective equipment, hiring someone to conduct a workplace exposure assessment, installing filtration systems, and receiving proper workplace training.