Parker Waichman LLP Injury Alerts
OCCUPATIONAL EXPOSURE TO TOXIC WELDING FUMES POSES SERIOUS LONG-TERM HEALTH RISKSOct 1, 2005
The first substantial settlement in welding rod multi-district litigation has been reported by Westlaw. The two defendants, Hobart Brothers Inc. and ESAB Group, have agreed to pay a substantial sum to settle the suit brought by Charles Ruth III, a former welder who claims that he is suffering from a neurological movement disorder as a result of exposure to welding materials.
Notwithstanding the defendants’ assertions that welding fumes could not be responsible for the injuries suffered by the plaintiff, they still chose to settle out of court right before the case was set to go to trial.
For years now there has been concern over the safety of welding rods, the toxic fumes they produce, and of welding methods in general. Welding rods can contain, or be coated with, metals such as zinc, lead, cadmium, chromium, copper, fluoride, lead, manganese, or vanadium.
When these materials are heated to high temperatures, they can emit poisonous, toxic fumes which can in turn lead to health-related hazards for welders. Various metals, coatings, residues, solvents, and gases can cause anything from asthma to cancer when inhaled, especially in confined spaces.
Perhaps the most serious and well-documented risk relating to welding rod materials is the connection between manganese and neurological injuries such as manganism, manganese poisoning, Parkinsonism, and Parkinson’s disease.
Manganese is highly toxic to both the brain and central nervous system. Records dating back as far as 1837 describe two ore workers who experienced symptoms of Parkinsonism as a result of manganese poisoning. In 1932, another article was published stating that exposure to manganese should be avoided by anyone, especially welders. Just five years later, one insurance company decided to publish a welding safety pamphlet which included information relating to the connection between manganese exposure and neurological injuries.
In 1963, Dr. Irving Sax, a noted toxicologist, wrote a book which explained that manganese can indeed cause damage to the nervous system leading to paralysis. According to Sax, those most at risk for developing manganese-related illnesses were welders.
Some of the most common symptoms associated with Parkinsonism and other neurological diseases are tremors of the arms and hands, loss of balance, excessive periods of time with little or no blinking or facial expressions, drooling, stiffness in arms and legs, akinesia, impaired reflexes, and slow, unsteady, and decreased movement.
Although the risk of manganese poisoning for welders has been known for some time, it appears that companies manufacturing and marketing welding materials are still trying to deny that manganese is responsible for illnesses like Parkinson’s disease.
At this point in time, however, more and more welders are beginning to file suits against their employers for placing them in unsafe working conditions or for failing to provide them with adequate information relating to the health risk associated with manganese and other welding materials.
A recent study conducted at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis examined the risk between welders and Parkinson’s symptoms. Researchers looked at the Parkinson’s screenings of 1,423 welders between the ages of 40 and 69, mostly male and found that 6 to 10 percent of them were diagnosed with definite Parkinson’s disease while another 13 percent was found to have probable Parkinson’s disease.
These results were compared to a number of Parkinson’s screenings from the general male population of residents of Copiah County, Mississippi. The rates of Parkinson’s disease were 7 to 10 times higher in the welders in the study than the average person living in Copiah County.
A prior study of 15 career welders revealed that the men started showing signs of Parkinson’s symptoms at age 46 as opposed to a control group of non-welders who did not show signs of Parkinson’s until age 63. This led the researchers of that study to believe that exposure to toxic welding fumes could speed the onset of Parkinson’s disease in individuals who may have had another 20 years before they started to experience symptoms.
After years of working under potentially dangerous conditions, welders are beginning to file suits against welding rod manufacturers. A former welder in Illinois was awarded $1 million when it was determined that his early onset of Parkinson’s disease was the result of prolonged exposure to manganese-filled welding fumes. This verdict was pivotal in welding rod litigation as it caused thousands of other welders to file claims.
In August of 2005, eighteen welding rod workers filed a class action lawsuit against Airco Inc., Caterpillar Inc., General Electric Company, and more than 55 other companies for alleged injuries caused by manganese poisoning.
Some of the claims against the defendants include negligence, strict products liability, and fraud/deceit by suppression or concealment involving various welding products that were manufactured or promoted by the defendants. The plaintiffs argue that they were exposed to manganese while on the job and that they were working in environments which were ill-equipped with precautionary measures to protect them from inhaling toxic fumes. The plaintiffs further claim that they were not warned of the dangers associated with manganese in welding fumes.
In order to counter the accusations relating to dangerous welding conditions and chemicals, in May of 2005 the Welding Information Center announced that the results of a new study found that there was no link between exposure to welding fumes and an increased risk of neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.
Researchers in that study examined Danish welders and found that they did not exhibit higher rates of Parkinson’s disease than members of the general population of Denmark. While those findings may accurately reflect statistical evidence applicable to that particular population, it does not seem to alter the current overall, medically accepted view that many thousands of individuals have been adversely affected by occupational exposure to toxic fumes from welding rods.
Lawyers for welders, and others exposed to welding fumes, represent 10,000 plaintiffs seeking compensation for their injuries. It is estimated that another 500,000 cases may appear, exposing welding-related companies to billions of dollars in potential liability. Some observers view this area of litigation as “the next asbestos.” This statement may very well be true as more and more workers are realizing that they have been the victims of occupational hazards beyond their control.
Welding rod manufacturers and others who have exposed workers to this insidious form of poisoning should accept responsibility for the decades of harm done to welders all over the world by dedicating themselves to implementing the use of alternative, non-toxic welding materials. In addition, welders should always be provided with working in conditions which meet and perhaps even exceed safety standards in order to minimize the risk of exposure to or inhalation of these extremely toxic fumes. The next year will prove to be pivotal in terms of welding-rod litigation as well as the future of the welding rod industry and the future for welders.
In a related story, Medical News Today has reported (10/10/05 at www.medicalnewstoday.com) that welding fumes from special (high chromium content) stainless steel have been linked to the same risk of occupational asthma as has been associated with welding fumes from common stainless steel.
The present report from the Department of Occupational Medicine, Finnish institute of Occupational Health, Helsinki, Finland, was based on respiratory symptoms, occupational exposure, and positive findings in specific welding challenge tests involving two patients who developed asthmatic reactions when exposed to welding fumes from special stainless steel. (The authors did point out, however, that different stainless steel subclasses were associated with variations in asthma “inducibility.”)
The study, which is published in the peer-reviewed European Respiratory Journal of the European Respiratory Society, is important since the use of special stainless steels is becoming more widespread in industry and construction.
If you or a loved one has experienced any injury you believe is associated with the occupational exposure to toxic welding fumes, please contact Parker & Waichman for a free case evaluation and analysis at http://www.yourlawyer.com/contact/newcase.htm.