Heat, noise, radiation, vibration, airborne particles, space restrictions, hazards from falling objects, electrical shock, and grinding swarf are just a few examples of hazards that the welders and grinders may be exposed to. Let’s shed some light on these hazards, specifically inhalation of particles including metal/welding fume, eye injuries, and harmful noise exposure. We’ll also explain what personal protective equipment (PPE) should be considered given these important heavy manufacturing applications.
Are You Aware of These Potential Eye and Face Hazards for Welders?
Let’s start by talking about eye and face hazards in welding and grinding applications. The source of these hazards can be ultraviolet, visible, and infrared radiation from the welding arc, contact with solid, liquid, or gaseous materials and foreign bodies, and mechanical impact from high-velocity particles to the eyes and face. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in 2018, approximately 30% of all eye injuries in the U.S. are due to impact from flying objects or particles and other trauma, and approximately 31% are due to foreign bodies in the eye.1
Exposure to ultraviolet radiation can lead to dry eyes, itchy eyes, and photokeratitis, which is an inflammation of the cornea often referred to as “arc eye”. These adverse health effects occur very quickly – after only milliseconds of exposure. Damage is immediate and accumulative, which can lead to cataracts, lens damage, blindness, and other potential adverse health effects upon long-term overexposure.
According to the Oxford Handbook of Occupational Health (2nd Edition), potential short-term symptoms from intense visible radiation are spot blindness, bloodshot eyes, and headaches. Red eyes or bloodshot eyes occur when the blood vessels on the surface of the eye expand. Sometimes a blood vessel can leak and cause bleeding on the surface of the eye and leave a red patch.
These health effects from visible light overexposure take some time to happen – normally seconds to hours, and damage can be immediate and accumulative. Long-term overexposure may lead to problems with the macula, impaired vision at night, and permanent retina damage.
Overexposure to infrared radiation can also cause problems. Adverse health effects can include dry eyes, tearing eyes, and headaches. Prolonged exposure to infrared radiation can heat the lens of the eye and produce cataracts over the long term. Health effects from infrared radiation can take a long time to happen – usually years. Damage is accumulative and can lead to retinal damage and cataracts.2
Foreign body eye injuries are also a concern during welding and grinding activities. Imagine you have been working hard for an hour grinding in a hot workplace. You take off your faceshield and wipe your brow on the sleeve of your shirt – which just happens to be covered in metal and abrasive particles– and these are accidently rubbed into your eye.
Particles can also fall into the eyes from hair, clothing, or even items of PPE. Gases and fine suspended dust in the air can cause irritation, inflammation, and other damage.
Corneal scratches caused by metal particles can cause a serious eye injury. The eye can become inflamed, painful, and teary in reaction to the foreign object. Medical attention may be required to remove the foreign object, wash out the eye, assess the damage and apply treatment as required.
When it comes to mechanical hazards, they are typically from chipping slag from welds, or high-speed particles resulting from cutting metal, surface preparation, weld refinement, and surface finishing. Another important consideration are the hazards associated with jumping tools and fragmenting discs.
Penetrating and blunt force injuries are often traumatic and painful. In most cases, they also require immediate medical attention. These injuries often lead to lost work time that will impact productivity. Other health effects to the eyes and face may include impact trauma and lacerations from flying particles and burns from hot slag or particles.
There is a wide variety of eye and face protection PPE available. Everything from safety glasses and goggles, safety glasses with foam gasket, clear and tinted faceshields, and grinding and welding headtops with powered and supplied air respirator systems. It is important to select products from a reputable PPE manufacturer that are appropriate for the hazard and working conditions and meet appropriate performance standards.
What are Some Respiratory Hazards Should Welders Be Aware of?
Welding and grinding applications can produce a wide variety of airborne contaminants, which if inhaled in significant quantities may lead to a number of acute and chronic health effects. All welding produces metal fumes and gases and/or vapors. Welding fume is an extremely small particle consisting mainly of metal oxides. The types of metal oxides present depend on the base metal and filler metal used. Certain gases and vapors can also be present depending on the type of welding and the presence of coatings or contaminants.
The emissions from a welding process is commonly referred to as the welding plume. The plume consists mostly of metal and metal oxide particles and can include:
- Silicon dioxide
- Vanadium oxide
- Various Fluorides.
Gases and vapors may also be present when welding. For example, argon and helium are protective gases in the welding process and can be hazardous in confined spaces because they may displace oxygen and can create a suffocation hazard. Others may be generated as by-products of fluxes, coatings, or contamination on the metal surface. These can include Phosphine, Phosgene, Hydrogen fluoride, Carbon monoxide, Nitrogen dioxide, and Sulfur dioxide, to name a few.
Examples of common and immediate symptoms, when overexposed to welding fumes, are eye and skin irritation, nausea, headache, dizziness, and metal fume fever. Chronic overexposures may affect the respiratory system and central nervous system. These adverse health effects may take months or even years to develop. Examples of chronic health effects include skin ulcers, occupational asthma, pneumoconiosis, COPD, cancer, and neurological effects.3
Welding and grinding activities will typically require some form of ventilation engineering control to reduce airborne exposures. Local exhaust ventilation is normally the most effective engineering control for welding and grinding exposures.
It is important to remember that only when other controls are impractical or insufficient to control exposure, or when controls are being implemented, can respiratory protection be used.
If respiratory protection is used to reduce these exposures, it is imperative that the employer implements a robust and effective respiratory protection program. During 2020, deficiencies with a respiratory protection program was the third most frequently cited workplace violation in the U.S.4
When other controls are not effective or feasible, or when implementing other controls, respiratory protection can be used to help reduce worker exposure. A wide variety of respirator options are available for welding and grinding including filtering facepiece respirators, half and full facepiece elastomeric respirators, powered air purifying respirators, and suppled air respirator systems. Certain powered and supplied air respirator systems feature headtops that combine welding and grinding protection, allowing workers to weld and grind without changing PPE.
What Noise Hazards Should Welders Consider While On the Job?
Exposure to loud noise is one of the most widespread hazards for people working in metal fabrication and many other industries. Occupational noise exposure is the second most common risk factor in the workplace, and the most commonly reported occupational illness in many countries.5
Unlike many other workplace injuries or illnesses, the symptoms of overexposure to noise are often unnoticed until significant exposure has occurred and permanent damage to the hearing system has been done. There is no blood or visible damage and seldom any pain to warn people that there is a problem. In addition, damage to the hearing system occurs slowly over time and the early warning signs are easy to miss.
The common noise levels found during metalworking applications, including welding and grinding are6:
- Welding/MMA 85 – 95dBA
- Welding/MIG 95 – 102dBA
- Arc air gouging 104 – 125dBA
- Grinding 85 – 109dBA
Where hearing protection is chosen as a control measure, there is a broad range of products to consider. Hearing protection covers a wide range of style, design, and functionality. Hearing protectors range from simple disposable foam plugs to the more sophisticated communication headsets with built-in Bluetooth functionality for two-way communication. Some earmuffs can be attached to industrial safety helmets or the rigid headtop of a powered & supplied air respirator system while others can be worn over-the-head or behind the head.
It is important to remember that personal protective equipment does not do any good if it is not being worn. The time wearing the equipment, and wearing the equipment correctly, is imperative. PPE needs to be worn 100% of the time when exposed to hazards to be effective.
To learn more about what PPE and other measures can be taken to protect those who engage in welding and grinding applications, please do not hesitate to reach out to our health and safety specialists.
1 NIOSH Work-Related Injury Statistics Query System (Work-RISQS), 2018 data. No data specifically for welding was found.
2 Oxford Handbook of Occupational Health (2nd Edition)
3 Oxford Handbook of Occupational Health (2nd Edition)
4 Top Ten Most Frequently Cited Standards, OSHA, U.S. Department of Labor, 2020
5 Addressing the rising prevalence of hearing loss, February 2018. World Health Organization
6 Recognition of Health Hazards in Industry – A Review of Materials and Processes. W.A. Burgess https://www.hse.gov.uk/engineering/noise.htm