Perhaps the greatest threat of injury on the job comes from the welding fumes. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the risks depend on the workplace conditions and the materials being welded: Nickel, for example, can cause asthma and cancer, manganese can cause Parkinson's disease, and zinc can cause flu-like symptoms. Certain coatings, like paints, residues, and solvents, can create hazards such as lead poisoning and deadly gas. The risk becomes greater when working in an enclosed space that's not properly ventilated.
Guard against fumes
Here are some tips for protecting yourself against welding fumes:
- Know your welding fumes. Read the Material Data Safety Sheets, or MSDSs, that spell out the fume hazards for each metal (your employer should have them on site) and take all necessary precautions.
- Use proper ventilation. Remember to ventilate the room well, using local-exhaust ventilation to capture fumes in still air, and keeping the exhaust hood four to six inches away from the source of the fumes.
- If ventilation isn't adequate, use a respirator. If respirators are used, your employer should offer worker training, proper respirator fitting, and medical screenings to make sure you can use a respirator.
- Use welding rods that emit a low fume. Also, work with welding guns that can extract fumes (sometimes up to 95 percent of them).
- Remove all paints and solvents before welding or torch cutting. Ensure that the residues are removed as well.
According to NIOSH, welders face the threat of burns to their bodies and eyes whenever working on a job. Welding, cutting, and grinding activities create different hazards. Infrared or radiant light can burn the skin or eyes, as can the open flames, sparks, and electric arcs that the welding tool creates. In addition, molten metal can splatter. Here are some tips to prevent burns.
- Guard against burns by wearing protective equipment, such as eye goggles, shields, and helmets, appropriate to the specific activity.
- If you're using an electric torch, always wear eye goggles and a helmet with a tinted face shield. The shield should be as dark as possible while at the same time allowing you to see what you're doing.
- Wear protective clothing. Use sturdy fire-resistant gloves, cuffless pants, ear muffs or ear plugs (to protect your ears against falling sparks), and leather bibs, a leather jacket, and leather leggings, if necessary.
- To prevent fires from breaking out, train employees in how to use fire extinguishers. These should be on hand at all times when welding. Equip the workplace with fire alarms.
Other safety tips
- Always wear eye protection. According to NIOSH, workers should have goggles on when there's a lot of dust or when doing overhead work. Wear a clear plastic face shield when working with chemicals or molten metals; when grinding, chipping, or using a wire brush on welds; when working around any flying particles; and when sandblasting.
- Guard against lead poisoning. Always use a respirator to protect yourself against lead poisoning when sandblasting or welding on bridges and other areas coated with old paint containing lead.
- Take care to avoid electric shock or electrocution. When using electrical tools in wet conditions (these can include wet clothing, high humidity, and standing water), wear appropriate protective equipment such as insulated rubber gloves. If you're working in hot weather or a warm environment, towel off frequently because even perspiration can be conductive; in addition, dry your hands before handling flexible cords and equipment that's plugged in. Double check where power lines are before you start working and, if possible, turn them off. Be especially careful on ladders or scaffolding -- even a small shock can make you lose your balance.
- Use ergonomically correct hand and power tools. Many electrical tools, including those used by welders, are cumbersome and may vibrate too much. When used often, they can cause problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Look for lighter tools that require less force to use, and ones that are balanced, meaning they won't tip forward or backward during use. Finally, test each tool handle to make sure it's comfortable and fits your hand. (If it's too small, you'll end up with a painful "pinch grip.")
Cheap, Lightweight Unit Can Reduce Risky Welding Fumes. Center to Protect Workers Rights. Volume XV, Number 2, Sept. 1997.
Operating Experience Weekly. Department of Energy. ORPS Report SR WSRC-RMAT-1997-0009, DOE OE Weekly Summary 97-40.