Achieving Welding Safety

Welding can be dangerous - make sure you know the basics.

Welders regularly face various risks that affect the eyes, nose, throat, lungs, heart, stomach, kidneys, urinary tract, skin, and even the central nervous system. Hazards associated with welding include burns, shock, particulate inhalation, and radiation. Because of these serious concerns, welders must follow strict rules in the workplace and wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) at all times. Employers have a responsibility to ensure the safety of their workplace and comply with OSHA standards as well.

Protect Against Welding Fume Exposure

Fusion or pressure welding, oxy-fuel and plasma cutting, and brazing all release smoke containing metal particulates that can include arsenic, cobalt, titanium, and zinc. If a welder works with materials that have paint or other protective coatings, the heating and welding of those materials can also release argon, carbon dioxide, ozone, and hydrogen fluoride gases.

For example, the short-time exposure to welding smoke causes symptoms that range from irritation of the nose, eyes, and throat to dizziness and nausea. Long-term, unprotected exposure causes irreversible damage to the lungs. The risks from this type of exposure include cancers that can develop in the lungs, throat, and urinary tract. Other risks from long-term, unprotected exposure to welding fumes include stomach ulcers and damage to the kidneys.

OSHA recommends either half-mask respirators, Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPRs), or Supplied Air Respirators (SARs) as the primary respiratory protection for welders. A half-mask respirator fits underneath a welding helmet and shouldn't obstruct the field of vision while utilizing differing filtering options for aerosols and particulates. OSHA regulations specify half-mask respirators that have a filtering efficiency of 99.97 for oil aerosols and particulates.

Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPRs) use a blower to push ambient air through an air-purifying HEPA filter; the respirator connects through a hose to the welder’s hood or helmet. Along with providing protection against smaller diameter particulates, PAPR units supply a flow of air that can help cool the welder. While the level of efficiency remains at 99.97, PAPR units protect against smaller diameter particulates than other half-mask respirators. On the other hand, Supplied Air Respirators (SARs) connect a welder’s helmet to a belt-mounted clean air source. Operation of an SAR requires a helmet integrated with a head seal; welders can regulate the air flow and select warm or cool air to enters the helmet.

Apply Ventilation Best Practices

Proper ventilation, use of personal protective equipment, and proven safety practices can eliminate the risk of a welder inhaling toxic fumes. Employers must verify that welders do not work in confined spaces without proper ventilation. However, an open area doesn't always provide the type of air movement needed to reduce fumes and gases. 

Very simply, moving fresh air displaces fumes and gases. Other solutions include the use of fume hoods, fume extractor guns, and vacuum nozzles that can reduce unsafe levels of fumes and gases. Manufacturers also offer portable or flexible nozzles that can pull fumes and gases away from the welder when placed close to the source.

Protect the Eyes, Face, and Hands

OSHA seeks employer compliance when it comes to providing welders with proper eye or face protection. Typical eye and face hazards for welders include flying particles, molten metal, chemical gases or vapors, and light radiation. OSHA standards require employers to ensure that welders use eye protection in hazardous environments and filter lenses when working with potentially dangerous light radiation. Good safety practices outlined in the OSHA standards require that employers provide training about eye and face protection. 

Welding, torch-cutting, and brazing can produce intense light, sparks, harmful rays, molten metal, flying debris, and glare. At a minimum, personal protective equipment includes welding goggles with tinted lens or eyecup goggles with tinted lens. However, the highest level of protection requires combination of goggles and a helmet, or a helmet that includes a face shield.

Sparks, molten metal, and flying debris also cause injuries to the hands. Leather welding gloves include additional padding to protect the palms from injury. A combination of leather and Kevlar thread prevents heat, sparks, and flames from harming hands.