I probably think about clean (and dirty) air more than most people. For 11+ years, I’ve worked for a company that keeps the air clean in industrial facilities. I write this blog, which keeps me focused on the need for clean air at a personal level.
But I still run across things that remind me of why this is so important. Actually, in this case, it’s someone that reminded me. I have a friend who is about 70 years old, and we were chatting recently when the conversation turned to the conditions he experienced while on the job as a welder.
He worked for the same company for over 30 years, and explained that the weld smoke and fumes were so bad in the shop, it was difficult to see from one wall to the other inside the building. How much of your time with the company was this a problem?, I asked. The first twenty years or so, he replied.
Welding was not the only source of pollution in the shop, though. He explained they had an older forklift that exhausted terrible fumes throughout the facility as it passed by. It created its own black cloud as it went around the factory.
I can’t imagine working in such a place for so long, yet I know many in his generation did. He lived in a small town, and I doubt there were many options for a welder. He did what he had to do in order to provide for his family. I find that admirable, yet it’s a shame that he and many others have had to work in such conditions for so long.
He faced other dust hazards, too. The one I found most fascinating was the perilous task of welding around large grain bins, which are obviously loaded with seed dust. Combine that dust with an ignition source, and it goes boom. Don’t believe me? Check out what happened when this corn bin collapsed. Or this educational demonstration of how an explosion can occur (fast-forward to about 2:45 on the video). Grain elevators can blow up, too. Welding near a concentration of seed dust is one of the more hazardous jobs you can ever do. It’s not the only source of a dust explosion in the workplace, but it’s one of the more common culprits.
He described the experience as nerve-wracking. A person can try to set things up so that the risk of an explosion is eliminated, but as you’re working, it’s always in the back of your mind: is this thing going to sky high?
I asked if he worries about health problems from all of the exposure to fumes in the workplace. He admitted that he does think about it sometimes. He immediately started talking about the cancerous places on his skin he’s had cut out over the years. I’ve never heard of exposure to weld fumes being a cause of skin cancer, but who’s to say there isn’t some connection?
The conversation with my friend has highlighted to me that everything we do to provide cleaner air for all employees matters. It matters in the most important ways: life and health. If your workplace does not have clean air, remember that it doesn’t have to be that way. Speak up. Do whatever you can to move your employer to provide a clean and safe place for everyone to work. If you are an employer or business owner, you have a moral responsibility to keep things safe for employees, whether you acknowledge it or not. Do the right thing, and ensure that your employees aren’t exposed to hazardous air that might affect their health for the rest of their life.