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Electricity revolutionized our lives in so many ways. A lot of important technological advancements in the 20th Century wouldn’t have been possible without it. One of the things you can’t do without electricity is welding, which relies on either AC or DC current. There’s no welding machine that doesn’t need electrical power to generate heat to melt the base and the filler metal into a joint. Because it uses electricity, welding entails hazards. One of the hazards is electrocution (1).
Primary vs Secondary Shock
For electrocution to happen, you have to be in the path of the current. In welding, there are two types of electrical shocks: primary and secondary shock.
Primary shock occurs when you receive a shock from the input voltage source. This happens when while touching the welder case or grounded metal, you also touch a hot wire or component inside the welding machine. Primary shock delivers high amounts of voltage through your body. Depending on the type of welder you have, the voltage involved in a primary shock can be 110 volts or more than 600 volts.
Secondary shock happens when you touch bare parts of the welding circuit. An example of a scenario that likely results in a secondary shock is when you touch the tip of the electrode clamp and the workpiece at the same time with your bare hands. Secondary electric shocks are more common among welders than primary shocks are.
Even though secondary shocks deliver lower voltages to the body, both types of shocks can be life-threatening. Even welding machines running on 120 volts can kill someone if the conditions are right. For instance, if you hold bare parts of the electrode cable and the tip of the ground clamp with your sweaty fingers, you will get electrocuted because your skin has less resistance to an electric current when it’s wet. Even getting electrocuted from 50 volts of electricity with your wet hands can have serious consequences.
What makes you vulnerable?
Physics taught us that electricity flows towards an area of the least resistance. If your skin and clothes are dry and you’re on a dry surface, your body carries more resistance to an electric current than anything on the welding table. So electricity will just flow right from the electrode cable to the workpiece and then to the welding table or the work clamp. But if you’re not wearing gloves and your hands are wet, your body has less resistance to electric currents.
Using old or defective cables or clamps
Worn cables with exposed wires and old clamps are potential shock hazards. You don’t have to keep checking them, but a monthly inspection should allow you to see frayed cables and torn insulation. To stay safe, replace electrode holders, ground clamps, and leads when they show signs of wear or damage.
Tinkering with your welding machine
When your welding machine gets glitchy, it’s tempting to try to do DIY troubleshooting. It’s okay if you know what you’re doing. But when you open the case of the welding machine to try to fix internal parts, you’re exposed to the “hot” components. Again, the current and voltage inside a welder is higher than those in your welding circuit. To remove the risk of primary shock, you have to unplug the device before you even try to take it apart. Simply switching the machine off doesn’t do the trick. Even if you’re just going to change MIG wire spools, unplug the machine. If you have to touch anything inside the welder, pull that plug first.
Are you just going to change the polarity so you can switch from flux core wire to MIG wire? Well, unplug the device first before touching the access door. Then, close the access door before plugging the machine back in.
In addition, proper storage of your welders keeps them in good shape. Hide them away in a dry area.
We keep saying that welding can be a dangerous job for good reason. This isn’t to scare you or anything. Thousands of welders have been doing the job without suffering from anything other than occasional neck pain. While you can get electrocuted from mishandling a welding machine or not following precautionary measures when working, you really don’t have to.
Electrocution can be serious. It can lead to cardiac arrest, severe burns, or neuromuscular problems. If you suffered even from a seemingly minor electric shock, see a doctor for a proper evaluation. If you or someone you know has been seriously electrocuted, call 911.
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