Welding is a hazardous workplace activity which exposes over half a million workers to health and safety risks each year in the United States alone. Welding safety measures are designed to protect employees from welding hazards. Welding safety can be implemented by conducting proper training, inspecting welding equipment, and ensuring workers are aware of safety precautions before performing welding activities to minimize the risk of health and safety injuries.
The world is full of 60-year-olds who regret not protecting their health when they were younger. And so it is with welders. It’s well-documented that many long-term health problems associated with the profession are preventable. But, because the causes and incremental effects can be invisible, they tend to be ignored, that is until welders grow older and the impact of that disregard can be ignored no longer.
It turns out those fumes inhaled through the years may cause serious medical complications. Those noises that didn’t seem so loud were, potentially destroying your ability to hear. The parts that didn’t seem so heavy may trigger shoulder problems. The constant kneeling can lead to knee troubles. All too often seemingly insignificant job-related activities can compound and lead to illness in later years. The good news is you can reduce the risk of these ailments significantly by forcing yourself to make a few simple changes to your daily routine.
Workers who perform welding activities are exposed to both physical and chemical hazards. The techniques and tools welders use may put employees at risk for arc blasts that have the potential to cause severe injuries as well as a result of chemical inhalation. To avoid the illnesses and injuries associated with these hazards, employers may want to implement engineering controls and use workplace safety resources to limit exposure.
Welding Safety Hazards
Welding operations present several hazards to both those undertaking the activity and others in the vicinity. Therefore, it’s important that you are aware of the risks and hazards welding poses, and understand what precautions you can take to protect yourself.
Electric shock is one of the most serious and immediate risks facing a welder. Electric shock can lead to severe injury or death, either from the shock itself or from a fall caused by the reaction to a shock.
Electric shock occurs when welders touch two metal objects that have a voltage between them, thereby inserting themselves into the electrical circuit. For instance, if a worker holds a bare wire in one hand and a second bare wire with another, electric current will pass through that wire and the welding operator, causing an electric shock. The higher the voltage, the higher the current and, thus, the higher the risk for the electric shock to result in injury or death.
The most common type of electric shock is secondary voltage shock from an arc welding circuit, which ranges from 20 to 100 volts. Bear in mind that even a shock of 50 volts or less can be enough to injure or kill an operator, depending on the conditions. Due to its constant change in polarity, alternating current (AC) voltage is more likely to stop the heart than direct current (DC) welders. It is also more likely to make the person holding the wire unable to let go.
To avoid secondary voltage shock, welding operators should wear dry gloves in good condition, never touch the electrode or metal parts of the electrode holder with skin or wet clothing and be sure to insulate themselves from the work and ground, keeping dry insulation between their body and the metal being welded or ground (such as a metal floor or wet surface).
Welding operators also should inspect the electrode holder for damage before beginning to weld and keep the welding cable and electrode holder insulation in good condition, because the plastic or fibre insulation on the electrode holder prevents contact with the electrically “hot” metal parts inside. Always be sure to repair or replace damaged insulation before use. And remember, stick electrodes are always electrically hot, even when welding is not being done, and the voltage is the highest.
An even more serious shock, primary voltage shock, may occur when a welder touches electrically “hot” parts inside the welder case or the electric distribution system to which the welder is connected. This action can lead to a shock of 230 or 460 volts.
When not in use, but still turned on, most welding equipment has a voltage that ranges from 20 to 100 volts at the welding circuit and voltages inside the welding equipment may range from 120 volts to more than 575 volts, all of which pose a risk for electric shock. Only qualified repair technicians should attempt to service or repair welding equipment.
Fumes and gases
It’s no surprise that overexposure to welding fumes and gases can be hazardous to your health. Welding fume contains potentially harmful complex metal oxide compounds from consumables, base metal and the base-metal coatings, so it’s important to keep your head out of the fumes and use enough ventilation and/or exhaust to control your exposure to substances in the fume, depending on the type of rod and base metal being used.
The specific potential health effects which relate to the consumable welding product being used can be found in the Health Hazard Data section of the Safety Data Sheet available from your employer or the consumable manufacturer.
Welding areas require adequate ventilation and local exhaust to keep fumes and gases from the breathing zone and the general area. In most situations, employers will provide a ventilation system- such as a fan, and an exhaust system or fixed or removable exhaust hoods- to remove fumes and gases from the work area.
All welding operators should be aware that there are ACGIH threshold limit values (TLV) and OSHA permissible exposure limits (PEL) for the substances in welding fume. These limits specify the amount of a substance in your breathing air to which welding operators can be exposed every day they work over the course of their career. Welding operators should wear an approved respirator unless exposure assessments are below applicable exposure limits. An industrial hygienist takes an air sample in the worker’s breathing zone to determine whether a worker’s exposure is below the exposure limits.
If the air in your breathing zone is not clear, or if breathing is uncomfortable, check to be sure the ventilation equipment is working and report concerns to a supervisor so your exposure to substances in the welding fume can be checked. This is especially important when welding with stainless steel or hard facing products. To prevent exposure from coatings such as paint, galvanizing, or metal platings on base metals, clean the base metal before beginning to weld. See a doctor if symptoms from overexposure persist.
Fire and explosions
The welding arc creates extreme temperatures and may pose a significant fire and explosions hazard if safe practices are not followed. While the welding arc may reach temperatures of 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the real danger is not from the arc itself, but rather the intense near the arc and the heat, sparks and spatter created by the arc. This spatter can reach up to 35 feet away from the welding space.
To prevent fires, before beginning to weld, inspect the work area for any flammable materials and remove them from the area. Flammable materials are comprised of three categories: liquid, such as gasoline, oil and paint; solid, such as wood, cardboard and paper; gas, including acetylene, propane and hydrogen.
Know where the fire alarms and extinguishers are located, and check the extinguisher’s gauge to make sure it is full. If an extinguisher is not available, be sure to have access to fire hoses, sand buckets or other equipment that douses fire. And, know the location of the nearest fire exit.
If welding within 35 feet of flammable materials, have a fire watcher nearby to keep track of sparks and remain in the work area for at least 30 minutes after finishing welding to be sure there are no smouldering fires. Put a fire-resistant material, such as a piece of sheet metal or fire-resistant blanket, over any flammable materials within the work area, if you can’t remove them.
In an elevated location, make sure no flammable materials are beneath you and watch out for other workers below you in order to prevent dropping sparks or spatter on them. Even high concentrations of fine dust particles may cause explosions or flash fires. If a fire starts, don’t panic – and call the fire department immediately.
Injuries from insufficient PPE
Personal protective equipment (PPE) helps keep welding operators free from injuries, such as burns – the most common welding injury – and exposure to arc rays. The right PPE allows for freedom of movement while still providing adequate protection from welding hazards.
Thanks to their durability and fire resistance, leather and flame-resistant treated cotton clothing is recommended in welding environments. This is because synthetic material such as polyester or rayon will melt when exposed to extreme heat. Welding leathers are especially recommended when welding out of position, such as applications that require vertical or overhead welding.
Avoid rolling up sleeves or pant cuffs, as sparks or hot metal will deposit in the folds and may burn through the material. Keep pants over the top of work boots – don’t tuck them in. Even when wearing a helmet, always wear safety glasses with side shields or goggles to prevent sparks or other debris from hitting the eyes. Leather boots with 6-to-8-inch ankle coverage are the best foot protection; metatarsal guards over the shoelaces can protect feet from falling objects and sparks. It will not be pleasant if a hot piece of spatter finds its way inside your clothing or shoes.
Heavy, flame-resistant gloves should always be worn to protect from burns, cuts and scratches. As long as they are dry, they also should provide some protection from electric shock. Leather is a good choice for gloves.
Helmets with side shields are essential for protecting eyes and skin from exposure to arc rays. Make sure to choose the right shade lens for your process – use the helmet’s instructions to help select the right shade level. Begin with a darker filter lens and gradually change to a lighter shade until you have good visibility at the puddle and weld joint, but it is comfortable and does not irritate your eyes. Helmets also protect from sparks, heat and electric shock. Welder’s flash from improper eye protection may cause extreme discomfort, swelling or temporary blindness, so don’t take any risks – wear a helmet at all times during welding.
To protect ears from noise, wear hearing protection if working in an area with high noise levels. Doing so will protect your hearing from damage, as well as prevent metal and other debris from entering the ear canal. Choose earplugs or earmuffs to protect the ears.
Protect Your Hearing
As odd as it sounds, fumes you breathe actually may harm your hearing. Multiple health studies show a strong correlation between certain chemicals and audio-nerve damage. For example, breathing high levels of carbon monoxide gas affects how much oxygen gets into the blood. If the oxygen level in the blood supply to auditory nerve cells is lowered, they become stressed, posing a higher risk for damage.
The more obvious threat to hearing is the noise welding generates. Noise is a health hazard that many welders ignore. The same people who might wear earplugs or earmuffs when grinding metal will shun that protection when welding, simply because it doesn’t seem loud—at least not to the point of being painful. However, welding is loud enough to cause minor nerve cell damage, and minor damage on a daily basis adds up over the years.
Even moderately loud noise, such as that produced by welding, leaves auditory nerve cells affected permanently. Damaged cells do not mend, and new ones don’t grow. The long-term result is the loss of hearing. To prevent auditory nerve damage now, wear ear protection. It’s never too late to start, but like saving money, the younger you are when you begin, the better off you’ll be later on.
Use Your Head, Not Your Back
Years of repetitive kneeling or lifting heavy parts can take their toll on the body. Chronically bad backs, knee joints, and shoulders are common ailments among aging welders.
When you’re young, it might seem easier and faster to work in an uncomfortable position instead of moving the part to a table and working at a comfortable height. Even if you decide to move the part, it might seem easier to lift a heavy object to a bench manually than to use a mechanical hoist.
Both actions are akin to winning the battle but losing the war. You might save some time, and you might not feel any pain from the squatting or the lifting, but over time, all of that kneeling and hauling can catch up with you. Be smart about your working situation. Use lifts, get help from others to move heavy pieces, don’t stay in one position too long, and try to be as comfortable as possible as much as possible. This is not a sign of weakness. It’s a simple acknowledgment that your health in the future is shaped by the actions you take today.
Remember, what doesn’t hurt you today may harm you tomorrow.
Always Wear Appropriate PPE
Your employer or manager has a duty to provide you with appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The PPE you receive will include:
- Welding helmets with side-shields. Welding helmets protect you from UV radiation, particles, debris, hot slag and chemical burns. You must wear the right lens shade for the work you are carrying out. Follow the manufacturer’s guidelines and gradually adjust the lens filter until you have good visibility that does not irritate your eyes. You should also use a fire-resistant hood under your helmet to protect the back of your head.
- Respirators. Respirators protect you from fumes and oxides that the welding process creates. Your respirator must be suitable for the work you are carrying out.
- Fire-resistant clothing. Fire-resistant clothing protects you from heat, fire and radiation created in the welding process and shields you from burns. It should have no cuffs, and pockets must be covered by flaps or taped closed. You should not use synthetic clothing. Instead, opt for leather and flame-resistant treated cotton.
- Ear protection. Ear protection protects you from noise hazards. You must wear ear protection that is appropriate for the noise created in your workplace and use fire-resistant ear muffs if there is a risk of sparks or splatter entering the ear.
- Boots and gloves. Insulated, flame-resistant gloves and rubber-soled, steel toe-capped safety shoes shield you from electric shocks, heat, fire, burns and falling objects.
To receive full protection from your PPE, you must not:
- Roll-up sleeves or trousers. Rolling up your clothes will leave you susceptible to molten metal or sparks getting caught in the folds, which could potentially lead to severe burns. You should also never tuck your trousers into your work boots.
- Remove your helmet while welding. You must always wear your helmet when welding and when in the vicinity of another welder. While the intensity of the radiation produced decreases, the further you are from a welding arc, those less than 10 metres away are still susceptible to arc-eye. Therefore, you must remain behind welding curtains or wear the correct PPE, even if you aren’t the worker carrying out the welding operation.
Other safety considerations
Welders should also be aware of other safety considerations within the work environment. For example, those working in a confined space or an elevated area make need to take extra precautions. In any welding situation, welding operators should pay close attention safety information on the products being used and the material safety data sheets provided by the manufacturer and work with their employer and co-workers to follow appropriate safety practices for their workplace.
Good common sense is also key. If opening cans of the electrode, keep hands away from sharp edges. Remove clutter and debris from the welding area to prevent tripping or falling. And never use broken or damaged equipment or PPE.