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A lot of beginners ask whether it’s okay to do MIG, TIG, or stick welding with just a welding helmet and a pair of gloves or whether they need a special welding shirt underneath a jacket. Ideally, you need the right amount of protection. OSHA and AWS recommend standard PPE for welding, but get out there and ask experienced welders and some of them forgo certain recommendations (1).
Dangers of Inadequate Welding PPE
It’s no secret that welding is a hazardous activity. If you know a welder who has been in the industry for a long time, he can certainly tell you how many times he has gotten burns from flying sparks and spatter. Sparks and spatter are tiny molten or hot metal fragments that shoot out in all directions from the arc. They can hit your hand, forearm, arm, neck, face, or body — so when these are exposed, you certainly will get painful, if not annoying, burns. Hot metal splinters and spatter are a particular problem for stick welding.
Walking into a weld shop with just your shirt as your body protection isn’t the best idea. Flying sparks and spatter can burn your cotton shirt or tear holes on it. But pesky splinters shooting from the arc aren’t just the problem associated with MIG or stick welding. Ultraviolet radiation can be intense enough to cause skin burns on exposed areas. Basically, these are what a welding shirt or jacket protects you from.
One downside of wearing both a welding shirt and a jacket is they can be uncomfortable. That’s why not every welder wears both. In many cases, either will suffice.
When Are Welding Shirts Necessary?
The more important question seems to be this: When is a welding shirt unnecessary? If you think about it, you’re really asking about the extent of wearing personal protective equipment. In heavy-duty welding situations, you need a full head to toe and shoulder to finger cover. An overall cover should protect you from every hazard present, and that means you most likely would be wearing a welding shirt underneath your jacket.
However, you’ll be surprised to find out that welders have different opinions regarding wearing something like a denim shirt underneath a leather jacket for stick welding. Some think wearing a welding shirt underneath a welding jacket is redundant and only adds to the discomfort and weight of the overall cover. Others, on the other hand, think a flame-resistant shirt provides extra protection in case hot metal fragments get past the collar of the jacket, because during intensive welding at high amperages, you get lots of flying sparks everywhere.
In other words, the kind of welding you do determines how much protective equipment you need to wear. But in any case, a welding shirt offers significant protection without leaving you drenched in sweat underneath and weighing you down. Some guys just wear their regular shirt and put on a leather apron over. This is a more comfortable setup and provides some protection for light welding. Remember, however, that your regular cotton shirt catches fire easily. And in conditions wherein you’re dealing with high arc temperatures and flying splinters of hot metal, your everyday shirt is going to get beaten up at some point.
If you’re doing TIG welding, protection from spatter isn’t that necessary. Even so, wearing a flame-resistant cotton shirt shouldn’t hurt.
What to Look for When Shopping for Welding Shirts
Comfort is a primary concern among welders. It is the untold factor that affects the weld quality. When you’re not comfortable in your workwear, you’ll be unable to work at your best and the quality of your weld suffers. You also become less efficient and productive. The following are other features to consider:
1. Flame resistance.
When your job exposes you to fire or burn hazards, you need to wear clothing that doesn’t catch fire easily. Flame-resistant welding shirts are usually made of leather, denim, or Kevlar. These materials don’t combust when hot metal splinters hit them.
2. Moisture wicking.
Ordinary cotton shirts become drenched with sweat when you’re doing strenuous work. Sweat isn’t only annoying when you’re focusing on making strong welds. It also makes the task more hazardous. Sweat dripping from your arms can dampen your gloves and increase your risk of electrocution. Moisture wicking shirts are designed to not become wet with perspiration but to move the sweat to the outer layer of the fabric where it can evaporate faster.
A reliable welding shirt retains its flame-resistant properties after being washed more than 25 times. Also, you want a shirt that can be machine washed. Fortunately, any good quality FR shirt will withstand machine washing.
Basically, those are the features that you should be looking for. Other features worth considering are sleeve vents and pockets. Sleeve vents keep you cool when you’re in a hot environment, like outdoors on a hot summer day. Shirts with pockets are handy because you can store keys, a phone, or any other item in them. Just make sure to button down the pockets to keep hot metal pieces from getting trapped in them while you’re welding. You can learn more about the best welding shirts here.
Because welding is not a walk in the park, necessary precautions are set in place. These precautions include wearing personal protective equipment. The question is whether you should wear a welding shirt or not. In most cases, you should. A leather or a flame-resistant shirt protects you from hot debris, which can burn ordinary fabric. The only times you probably don’t need a welding shirt is when you’re doing some light welding work and you have a leather apron or a jacket on. However, if you’re doing intense stick welding, a welding shirt underneath a jacket offers more protection.