How to Approach Welding Hazards
Welding and fabrication require the use of specialized tools and equipment to perform processes that present elevated risks that must be understood and mitigated in order to work safely and prevent death or serious injury to the operator and other nearby persons. It is very important to recognize what these risks are, how and when they appear, and what to do in order to ensure that the chance of bodily harm through acute or cumulative exposure is as low as possible.
The Types of Hazards in Welding & How to Prevent Them
There are a variety of high-risk factors in welding. Here’s what they are & everything you’ll need to know about each.
Electromagnetic radiation is the way in which energy moves from one place to another. Most welding and cutting processes produce one or more forms of radiation. This radiation varies in
energy depending on the wavelength or frequency. Radiation with a shorter wavelength (higher frequency) carries a higher density of energy than radiation with a longer wavelength (lower frequency). Exposure to higher frequency radiation (such as a welding arc) for even a short amount of time can cause severe damage to the eyes and skin. In the eyes, radiation exposure can cause photokeratitis (arc flash burn), retinal scarring, cataracts, and even blindness. Ultraviolet radiation attacks the electrons in skin cells, causing burns on exposed skin.
Prolonged exposure can eventually lead to skin cancer. In order to prevent radiation damage to the eyes, protective eyewear and lenses which meet ANSI Z87.1 and ANSIZ49.1:2005 should be used. To prevent UV damage to exposed skin, clothing should be worn in accordance with OSHA standard 1910 which covers as much exposed skin as possible, including the neck, face, and forearms.
Exposure to as little as 100 milliamps (1/10 amp) of electrical current can be fatal. Electric shock occurs when the human body accidentally becomes part of an electrical circuit. When this happens, electrons in the atoms of human tissue resist the flow of electrical current and quickly absorb the resulting heat, which causes severe burns, tissue damage, or death. Since many welding and cutting processes use electricity to generate an arc, it should come as no surprise that according to OSHA standard 1910.332, welders face a higher-than-average risk of electric shock. When poorly maintained or improperly connected equipment, sweat, moisture, and incorrect operation are added to the risk formula, the potential for death or serious bodily injury rises considerably.
Many injuries resulting from electric shock are caused when the injured party falls after sustaining a shock, as the muscles spasm involuntarily. To mitigate the risk of electric shock welders face, operators should be trained and familiar with the proper operation of equipment.
- Equipment should be well-maintained and turned off when not in use.
- Operators should inspect the condition of their equipment, especially the cables, on a daily basis.
- When extension cords are used, they should be rated for the application, properly grounded, and routed away from moisture and moving equipment.
- Welders should wear personal protective equipment that insulates them from electrical current and take care in wet environments or when perspiring excessively as sweat is highly conductive.
- Welders performing tasks above ground level should follow fall protection protocol.
Fires & Burns
Welding can be a violent process, generating sparks and sending bits of molten metal onto nearby surfaces which can burn operators and cause fire or explosion. Cutting torches are often used which can burn in excess of 4,000°F and require the use of compressed highly-flammable gases. Welders can sustain burns either directly from the process they are performing or from fire ignited as a secondary hazard of the process. In order to reduce the risk of fire, welders
should be trained on fire prevention strategies including the segregation of combustible materials, care of oxygen and fuel gas storage cylinders, and inspection of equipment. Welders should also wear flame-resistant clothing, have access to fire extinguishers, and be trained in their use. Burns may be sustained either directly from the equipment being used, from sparks or molten metal originating from the work surface, or via residual heat from the workpiece. To prevent burns, welders should wear proper gloves, sleeves, aprons, and footwear. Welders should also have access to and be trained to use first aid equipment to treat burns such as bandages and compresses.
Fumes & Gases
Many welding and cutting processes generate hazardous fumes and gases. You should absolutely avoid this welding hazard.
Fumes and gases are produced when a material is heated above its boiling point and vapors condense into tiny particles which become airborne. These particles may or may not be visible and may originate from filler rod or wire, base materials, or coatings or plating.
When inhaled, these fumes and gases may cause nausea, dizziness, headache, fainting, or disorientation. Prolonged exposure may cause emphysema, lung cancer, brain damage, and even death.
Zinc fumes are particularly hazardous and can induce a condition commonly referred to as “metal fume fever” which has symptoms similar to the flu. Because of this, welders should take particular care when welding or cutting zinc plated or galvanized material.
Perhaps one of the most dangerous substances which can be transformed into a toxic gas by welding or cutting is hexavalent chromium or hex chrome. Hex chrome can cause cancer, ulcers, respiratory distress, and allergic reactions. Other common metals which produce hazardous fumes to welders are aluminum, manganese, nickel, cadmium, beryllium, iron, mercury, and lead.
To reduce the risk of fumes and gases generated by welding or cutting, welders should wear respiratory personal protective equipment such as powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs), use fume extraction devices, or both.
It takes a lot of energy cut, weld, bend, twist, form, and work metals. When this energy is transmitted, sound is often a byproduct. This sound can range from barely noticeable, such as in the buzz of a TIG torch, or powerfully deafening, such as in air carbon arc gouging. OSHA requires companies to implement a hearing conservation program when employees are exposed to noise at or exceeding 85 decibels (dB) averaged over eight working hours. Unfortunately, it takes far less than eight hours of exposure to high-decibel noises to cause permanent hearing damage. At noise levels above 112dB, hearing damage can occur in seconds. Noise hazards are extremely common for welders; however, they can be easily and effectively mitigated with earplugs or ear muffs with the proper attenuation rating for the environment. In extreme environments, both may be required to reduce sound levels below the 85dB threshold.
Taking appropriate measures to increase workplace safety will help ensure that every employee goes home healthy at the end of the day. Free welder safety training is available online from the American Welding Society.