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Welders are vulnerable to a number of hazards while working. One of these hazards is radiation. There are two types of radiation produced by the welding arc. One is thermal radiation. The other is ultraviolet radiation. Both are harmful, but UV radiation is more insidious and is often blamed for the common malady among welders: the flash burn (1).
Flash burn is also known as arc eye, and it happens when UV radiation burns the surface of the eye. It’s the cornea that’s particularly affected. However, any part of the eye and face can succumb to sunburn-like symptoms when exposed to ultraviolet light. That’s why your whole eye can feel hot and painful after a welding operation without sufficient eye protection.
The Dangers of Ultraviolet Light
One of the dangerous things about arc radiation is that you don’t notice the effects until a few hours after. Hence, welders can go on working with the wrong lens shade, eyes wide open because the welding helmet renders the work area dark enough (though not dark enough for harmful radiation).
The thing about ultraviolet radiation is that it can cause significant damage even with a few minutes of exposure. That’s why even bystanders looking at the welding activity without eye protection can suffer from photokeratitis, the medical term for flash burn.
How do you know you’re suffering from flash burn?
Getting an eye “sunburn” feels really uncomfortable. Your eyes feel “hot” because they are inflamed. The sensation can range from mild discomfort to significant pain. Just like any form of corneal inflammation, this one also feels like there’s something in your eye, like a grain of sand scratching your eye. Now, your eye’s defense mechanism against injury is to produce tears, so you’d be tearing up for a few days until the inflammation subsides. Your inflamed cornea also makes you abnormally sensitive to light. All these symptoms can render you out of commission for at least 2 or 3 days until your eyes heal.
Fortunately, though, flash burns are minor eye assaults. Usually, only the outermost layer of the eyes are affected, and this layer will just generate new cells in a few days. But this doesn’t mean you can go on and slack off on donning eye protection and not suffer from permanent damage to your vision at some point in the future.
How do you take care of your eyes while welding?
The most obvious way to avoid getting a flash burn is to not get yourself exposed to arc radiation, but this is out of the question if you’re a welder or anyone working close to the welding area. Even so, there are many ways to significantly reduce your exposure to infrared and ultraviolet radiation.
For welders, helmets with the right lens shade are a basic part of their overall personal protective equipment. The right lens shade depends on the kind of welding you’re doing. Recommended shade numbers for most types of welding are from 10 to 14. The rule is this: The higher your working amperage, the darker your lens should be. If you’re using an auto-darkening helmet, set it to the right shade before you strike the arc. If you’re not sure what shade to set it to, just choose the darkest shade to be safe. At least, you’re covering the entire range of the auto-darkening filter.
An alternative or an adjunct to a welding helmet is a pair of welding goggles, which protect your eyes the same way a helmet does. Welding goggles may be worn alone or worn underneath the helmet, providing an extra layer of protection in case you forget to pull down your welding hood. But as an alternative to a standard helmet, welding goggles only protect your eyes. The rest of your face will still be susceptible to UV light, and you can suffer from facial burns as a result. So if you have to choose between a helmet and a pair of googles, you’re better off with a helmet.
Protecting Others Around
Anyone who’s assisting you or anyone watching may have to wear welding glasses or goggles to protect their eyes. However, a better way of protecting visitors from welding arc radiation, as well as sparks, is to install welding curtains. These aren’t ordinary curtains, as they are made of heat and flame resistant materials, making them effective in blocking thermal and ultraviolet radiation, as well as sparks. Because the welder’s PPE protects him from the harsh elements emitted by the welding arc, the purpose of welding curtains is to protect everyone else, particularly visitors, observers, or workers nearby.
The Bottom Line
Welding is a dangerous activity for several reasons, and the UV light the welding arc emits is just one of your problems. UV light burns your skin and your eyes. Also, intense levels of visible light and heat can cause temporary or permanent visual impairment. Wearing a welding helmet is a basic requirement for any welder. Welding helmets are equipped with lenses that filter ultraviolet radiation as well as visible light and infrared radiation. Choosing the right lens shade for the kind of welding you’re doing is as important as wearing the helmet itself.
If, however, you accidentally expose yourself to the welding arc and you feel a burning sensation in your eyes, go to an ophthalmologist right away.
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