Galvanised metal contains zinc, which becomes a toxic vapour when it is heated. Zinc gases can cause metal fume fever, which does permanent damage to your lungs. Although it usually resolves itself within 48 hours with no apparent permanent effects, metal fume fever can be fatal within hours of exposure. The effects of zinc vapour poisoning can continue for up to two weeks later, causing extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, muscle pain, nausea and blurred vision. Complications include chemical pneumonia and death when zinc exposure is combined with exposure to other heavy metals such as cadmium oxide.
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Always be sure you know the exact composition of any metal you intend to work. Get any unidentified metal spectrum analysed or purchase all your metal as a known type from a reputable source. Never heat, torch cut or weld any galvanised metal.
Heat, grind or cut in well-ventilated spaces only, even when you are sure what type of metal you are working. Metalworkers often develop some combination of asthma, emphysema, silicosis or mesothelioma from constant, lifelong exposure to toxic gases and inhalation of fine metal particles. If you must work metal indoors, your work area must have several large, open, screened windows and open, double, roll-up doors. If you do a high volume of hot work and grinding, invest in an industrial ventilation unit.
Wear appropriate gear when doing hot work, grinding, welding or torch cutting. This includes a NIOSH-approved respirator, head covering, gloves and leather apron. Remove all shop clothes immediately after you finish work. Shower and change so that you do not carry any metal residue home or transfer it to your loved ones.
Safety rules for the metal shop are not just suggestions. Shop accidents and exposures can literally cost you an arm, an eye, your lungs or your life. Veteran metalworkers often break seemingly minor safety rules. Each time no apparent injury occurs, it is easier to break the rules again. The problem with that type of thinking is that the damage to your body happens over a number of years. By the time you experience symptoms, the damage is already permanent.
Posthumous Safety Warning
Jim "Paw Paw" Wilson, a lifelong metalworking safety demonstrator, died while attempting to burn away the zinc from some galvanised metal. There were more fumes than available ventilation could handle, so Jim and his workers were exposed to toxic levels of vaporised zinc. Jim got his workers safely away, but lost his life two weeks later to chemical pneumonia caused by his exposure to zinc fumes.
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