Welding accidents happen to more than 500,000 welders each year. That’s enough reason to consider welding a dangerous job when precautions are ignored. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set in place safety guidelines to mitigate welding hazards (1).
Some of the most common hazards involved in welding are electrocution, toxic fumes, radiation, fire, and explosions. Being aware of these potential dangers is a key to knowing what to avoid to ensure the safety of everyone in the workplace and ensure the quality of your work. Let’s discuss these hazards in detail.
This is the most dangerous and immediate risk associated with welding. Electrocution can lead to severe burns or death on its own, but since it causes people to lose control and fall, secondary injuries aren’t uncommon. Electric shock can happen when you touch metal objects connected to a power source. When strong enough, the current can pass through your body and electrocute you.
There are two types of electric shocks associated with welding: primary and secondary electric shock. Primary electric shock happens when you touch two electrically “hot” wires or when you touch an electrically hot lead or metal inside the welder while the power is on. This is extremely life-threatening because of the high voltage (115-600 volts).
However, most cases of electric shock are secondary. Secondary voltage shock happens when you touch the electrode or the electrode cable’s exposed wire and the metal workpiece. An arc welding circuit has anywhere from 20 to 100 volts of electricity. The higher the voltage, the higher the risk of injury, burns, or death. It doesn’t have to be a hundred volts. Even voltages below 50 are enough to cause a electric shock, especially if it’s from an AC power source.
Avoiding a secondary voltage shock is accomplished by wearing dry gloves and by not touching the electrode or any metal part of the electrode holder. Never use old and torn welding gloves.
Toxic Fumes and Gases
Consumables release metal oxides when they burn, and these oxide fumes and gases are toxic. However, when you’re welding, you’re so close to the emitted fumes that it’s impossible not to inhale them. Exposure to these fumes can lead to respiratory diseases, including pneumonia and lung cancer. To avoid inhalation of dangerous levels of toxic emissions, your work area should be well ventilated. A local exhaust should keep fumes away, but something as simple as a fan can stop the fumes from accumulating in one place. Nonetheless, your weld shop should have a reliable exhaust system.
You may have to check air quality in your workstation to make sure welding fumes are below the threshold limits. These limits indicate the minimum levels of fumes that impact your health. When fumes reach these levels, you will need to wear a breathing apparatus while working.
Fumes can be a result of welding base metals with paint, dirt, or grime on them. Cleaning your base metals before welding is, therefore, a necessary step to prevent such a repercussion.
On the other hand, if your breathing zone becomes filled with smoke, check your ventilation system.
It seems irrational to think that arc temperatures reaching 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit will not cause fire. However, the arc itself is the least of your concerns. Fire hazard usually comes from the sparks and spatter, which can shoot up to 30 feet away. If you’re not wearing the right PPE, your clothing can catch fire once it gets in contact with some hot glowing splinters. Sparks can also hit or land on flammable materials, like wood, paper, or gasoline.
A few ways to prevent fires is to keep a fire extinguisher handy, remove clutter, and store combustible materials away from your work area. Having a fire watcher while you’re working is also recommended. Moreover, inspect your work area for at least 30 minutes after your work is done to make sure no glowing embers are lying idly.
The common cause of burns due to welding is sparks or spatter that come in contact with the skin. This is often a result of inadequate protection or inappropriate clothing. This is a problem when welders disregard precautions for quick or brief welding operations. However, a lesser known cause of burns is exposure to UV radiation. This is more insidious because the symptoms do not manifest right away.
Skin burns are always avoidable by wearing the appropriate PPE for welding (e.g. welding gloves and welding jackets or shirts).
Also known as flash burn, arc-eye affects the cornea. When you’re not wearing sufficient eye protection while welding, you’re exposing your eyes to dangerous levels of ultraviolet radiation, which doesn’t only cause skin burns but also causes corneal inflammation. This is a painful condition whose symptoms don’t manifest until a few hours after the injury has occurred. That means you can go on and not notice anything, thereby aggravating the eye injury. Again, you can prevent this from happening by wearing your welding helmet equipped with the right lens shade for the kind of welding job you’re about to do.
Welding is one of the most hazardous jobs in the world, and there’s no way to remove these hazards. But you can eliminate or reduce exposure to these hazards by following standard safety measures, which include unplugging your welding machine when not in use, keeping fire extinguishers nearby, putting on PPE before working, making sure your work space has sufficient ventilation, and decluttering your work area. If you are looking for a starting point for MIG welding we recommend reading The Best MIG Welder for Home Use.
Employers and workers should work together to reduce the risk of accidents in the workplace. Employers have the responsibility to make sure their workers know how to operate equipment, understand material safety data, and comply with the standard safety practices.