“I can’t think of any activity that is more hazardous than welding,”
That’s a quote from Frank Burg, president of Accident Prevention Corporation. And he’s not wrong. Welders face serious illness and injury risks while on the job – some of them are obvious, but many are not.
Here, we’ll address some of the most pressing safety risks for those in the welding profession and discuss what you can do to protect yourself or your workers from them.
Hazard #1: Fire and Explosion
Fire and explosion are two of the most serious hazards welders face while on the job. Some types of welding use acetylene, which is both flammable and an explosive. Combine that with heat of up to 6,000 degrees and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
Hazard #2: Toxic Fumes
Metal fumes are one of the hazardous aspects of welding. And depending on the content of the metals being used, the impact can range from mild to deadly.
"Metal fume fever," a flu-like illness, is common among welders who are exposed to fumes and generally lasts about 24 to 48 hours. Other short-term effects from breathing welding fumes include:
- Shortness of breath
- Irritation of the eyes, ears, nose, and throat
Tests of welding dust and fumes have found aluminum, nickel, manganese, lead, chromium, copper, iron oxide, and cadmium oxides. NIOSH notes that some of these have an impact far greater than metal fume fever. Their researchers believe that fumes containing manganese, for instance, are one of the root causes of Parkinson’s syndrome (also known as manganese-induced parkinsonism), which results in reduced coordination and loss of balance, difficulty walking, shaking, and slurred speech. Work involving cadmium, on the other hand, can result in death if proper precautions aren’t taken.
There are numerous other long-term effects from welding fumes, including heart disease, damage to the kidneys, lead poisoning, lung and throat cancer, and stomach and neurological problems. Many welders also suffer from respiratory illness.
Hazard #3: Eye and Skin Injuries
The UV rays produced by arc welding can be extremely hazardous to the soft tissue of the eyes and skin. Workers who look at the arc without protective safety glasses absorb the full spectrum of UV radiation and can actually burn their eyes, in a painful but temporary injury called welder’s flash or arc eye. The heat that welding generates can also burn the skin if proper PPE isn’t worn (learn more about UV Risk in the Workplace).
Hazard #4: Hot Work Environments
Welding produces intense heat – that's obvious. But some workers may be more sensitive to the heat than others. Even workers who adapt more readily to hot environments can still succumb to heat-related illnesses like heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Watch out for signs like sweating (or when sweating ceases despite remaining in the heat), increased heart rate or body temperature, reduced and dark yellow urination, lack of coordinator, impaired judgment, and irritability (learn about 7 Lesser-Known Factors That Contribute to Heat Stress).
Hazard #5: Ergonomic Issues
While less serious than some of the hazards named above, many welders experience problems with their backs and necks due to awkward working positions. This can be compounded by a combination of heavy equipment, like a hardhat and welding shield.
How Welders Can Stay Safe
Despite the innate hazards that come with the job, welders can stay safe by doing the following things.
1. Always Wear Proper Protective Gear
This is number one for a reason. Donning the right PPE is critical for most jobs, but especially in welding. Welders should wear heavy-duty aprons and gauntlet gloves, as well as other garments that don’t burn easily. Shaded safety glasses offer protection from UV radiation and from bits of material during cutting. During grinding operations, it’s important to wear a face shield that protects the entire face from being burned by sparks. Steel-toed boots are also necessary.
We can't overstate the importance of protecting workers from welding fumes. Some companies use fume extraction hoods to draw fumes away from the face. Another option is to use respirator masks to cover the nose and mouth and filter dust, odors, and particles.
2. Take Regular Breaks and Stay Hydrated
When working in hot environments, it’s important to take breaks frequently so that the body doesn’t overheat. This is especially so if workers are wearing heavy PPE, as many welders do.
Employers can support workers by enforcing break times and providing cool water to help them re-hydrate (find out why Hydration in the Workplace Is Not Just a Summer Issue).
3. Know What Materials You’re Working With
As mentioned earlier, some welding fumes can be particularly dangerous – and even fatal. By knowing the composition of the materials you’re working with, you can be sure to take the appropriate precautions. If you’re unsure about the material and whether you have the right protection, always bring your concerns to a supervisor before beginning work.
4. Clean Containers Before Work Begins
Workers have been injured or killed by fires or explosions while working with pressurized containers (like fuel tanks). Ensure all containers are cleaned thoroughly prior to starting work. You can make this a regular part of your daily inspection or safety check.
5. Arrange Work Stations with Comfort in Mind
Some awkward positions might be unavoidable, but employers should do their utmost to arrange workstations so that welding tasks can be performed in natural, comfortable positions. A well-designed work station can reduce stress to the neck, shoulders, and back.
Welding poses some serious risks to workers, but it’s not all bad news. With a few simple measures, you can mitigate the risks and keep your workers safe while on the job.