Health effects of breathing welding fumes include eye, nose, and throat irritation; possible lung damage; various types of cancer; kidney and nervous system damage; and suffocation when oxygen-displacing gases are involved in welding in confined or enclosed spaces.

Steering Clear of the Fire and Shock Hazards

Hot work should not be done where flammable vapors or combustible materials exist. Both the work and the equipment being used by the welder should be placed outside any hazardous area.

Fires, burns, electric shock, and exposure to welding fume and gases are some of the leading hazards to which welders may be exposed. The protections they require are spelled out in OSHA’s 29 CFR 1910.252, the welding, cutting, and brazing standard; its section (b)(2) specifies eye protection that must be provided.

The standard refers to OSHA's 1910.133, which contains charts listing the minimal shade numbers needed for protecting welders' vision and says welders' lenses must comply with the ANSI/ISEA Z87.1-2015 standard, the American National Standard for Occupational and Educational Personal Eye and Face Protection Devices.

Hot work such as welding, cutting, and grinding can expose workers to the risk of fires when flammable or combustible materials nearby are ignited. OSHA points out that the basic precautions for fire prevention when performing hot work are:

  • Perform hot work in a safe location or with the fire hazards removed or covered.
  • Use guards to confine the heat, sparks, and slag and to protect fire hazards that cannot be moved.

In short, hot work should not be done where flammable vapors or combustible materials exist, and both the work and the equipment being used by the welder(s) should be placed outside any hazardous area, according to OSHA. The 1910.252 standard says personnel should act as a fire watch while hot work is being done in locations where:

  • appreciable combustible material—building construction or contents—is closer than 35 feet from the work
  • appreciable combustible material is more than 35 feet away but is easily ignited by sparks
  • wall or floor openings within a 35-foot radius will expose combustible materaisl in adjacent areas, including concealed locations in walls or floors
  • combustible materials are adjacent to the opposite side of metal partitions, walls, ceilings, or roofs and are likely to be ignited

The standard also says fire watch personnel must:

  • have fire extinguishing equipment readily available and have been trained on its use
  • know how to sound an alarm in case of a fire
  • watch for fires in all exposed areas, but try to extinguish them only when they are “obviously” within the capacity of the extinguishing equipment that is available; if not, they should sound the alarm
  • maintain the fire watch for at least 30 minutes after welding or cutting is completed, in order to detect and extinguish possible smoldering fires

The most common types of injuries sustained by welders are burns and eye injuries. The right PPE for them—protective apparel, gloves, welding helmets, respiratory protection—is addressed in both 1910.252(b)(3) and by 1910.132, OSHA's general PPE standard. It calls for employers to perform a hazard assessment, before PPE is selected and worker training commences. Once trained, workers should understand what PPE is needed and when, its limitations, and proper care and maintenance of their PPE.

Adequate ventilation and local exhaust are required in welding areas to keep the fumes and gases away from the welder’s breathing zone and the general area. Employers should provide a ventilation system, such as fume extractors and exhaust hoods, that will remove fumes and gases from the work area.

Shock Hazards
Most welding equipment has a voltage that presents a risk of electric shock. An accident report still available on OSHA’s website describes one fatality in 2005, an electrocution of an employee who was welding trailer gates:

"He was welding using a Wire Feed, Arc Welding Machine. Employee #2 was in the room, but did not observe what happened. He stated he heard Employee #1 cry out. When he turned around, Employee #1 was on the floor. Other coworkers ran to see what happened and two coworkers started administering CPR. Emergency services arrived, took over CPR, and transported Employee #1 to the hospital, where he later died. An investigation into the incident found that the welding machine was in the 'on' position, and that the 50 Amp electrical breaker, which served the circuit to the welding machine, had been tripped. It was noted that Employee #1 did not have his welding hood on. He did have his work gloves on, but the welding gun was not in his hand. The OSHA investigation revealed that the electrical conductors (2 hot and 1 neutral), inside of the male attachment plug for the welding machine, were not securely connected to their terminal points. The visible evidence of burns inside of the attachment plug and the melting of the individual strands of the neutral conductor indicated that the neutral conductor came out of its terminal point inside of the attachment plug and it made contact with a hot (energized) wire that was also inside of the attachment plug. This contact allowed current to flow through the neutral conductor and back down to the equipment grounding attachment location, which was on the metal frame inside of the welding machine. The frame of the welding machine became energized and so did any metal parts of the welding machine that were in contact with the metal frame. The welding machine was sitting on the floor next to a tin wall, when the incident occurred. There were two electrical burn marks on the tin wall, which matched up perfectly with two electrical burn marks that were on the side of the welding machine which was facing towards the tin wall. It was believed that Employee #1 made contact with the energized welding machine and he received an initial electrical shock. He either fell against the welding machine, causing it to hit the tin wall or both Employee #1 and the welding machine hit the tin wall. When the energized welding machine made contact with the tin wall, an electrical short circuit would have been created that would be sufficient to cause the fifty (50) Amp circuit breaker to trip out."

The OSHA page titled "Controlling Electrical Hazards" (https://www.osha.gov/Publications/3075.html) is a good resource for understanding the causes of electric shock and how to protect workers from electrical hazards through equipment de-energization, PPE, training, and work practices.

This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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