Covering the Bases Welding PPE from Head to Toe

Covering the Bases Welding PPE from Head to Toe

When it comes to defending against the hazards faced by welders every day, you must incorporate protective gear from head to toe.

The concept of welding is not new—people have been merging metals together using a plethora of techniques since the 1880s. While technology and protective gear has dramatically improved since then, there are still numerous hazards those in the field need to defend against.

In fact, OSHA reports1 some notable hazards for the welding, cutting and brazing sectors that might give you pause. An estimated 562,000 employees are at risk for exposure to chemical and physical hazards of welding, cutting and brazing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 500,000 workers are injured every year2 due to welding accidents. The risk of fatal injury to welders is higher than four deaths per 1,000 over a career.

With stats like these, it’s more obvious than ever that employers must work with their employees who spend time welding to understand the hazards they face, protect against them and plan for every emergency situation that may arise.

Common Welding Safety Hazards

Today, nearly half a million welders are working every day with an increased risk of injury due to hazards that are specific to their daily tasks, including: exposure to fumes and gases, burns, eye damage, crushed digits, electric shock, fire—and even explosions. Let’s take a deep dive into each of these hazards.

Physical Hazards. Cuts, eye damage, burns, crushed toes and fingers are all physical hazards that are often associated with welding. Injuries that result from this hazard are often due to insufficient personal protective equipment.

Exposure to Fumes and Gases. Fumes and gases created in the welding process can cause severe health problems for welders as they are classified carcinogens. Overexposure to these fumes could lead to respiratory illnesses, cancer and impaired speech and movement.

Fire and Explosions. When welding, the arc creates extreme temperatures that may reach up to 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit and can spark and spatter up to 35 feet away. This extreme heat could cause injury to the welder and the arc spark could catch flammable material on fire in the workspace if not properly cleared out.

Electric Shock. The most significant threat to a welder is electrocution. The sudden discharge of electricity to the body can cause serious injury and even death. Injuries can result from the shock itself, or a fall caused by the reaction to the shock.

The most common type of electric shock is secondary voltage shock from an arc welding circuit, which ranges from 20 to 100 volts. A shock of 50 volts or less can be enough to injure or kill an operator depending on the conditions.

Selecting PPE for Total Coverage

As laid out above, welders face safety hazards that can impact the health of their entire body. To ensure that they can work safety and efficiently, without harm, welders must wear proper PPE from head to toe.

Eye and Face Protection. Protection for the head is the cornerstone of any welder’s PPE. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that those working in the welding field are at an especially high risk of on-the-job eye injuries. Welders must look to protect their head, eyes and face from hazards that are present while working.

Keeping workers protected from radiant heat and exposure is critical to reduce injuries. Welder’s Flash, a common condition by exposure to intense ultraviolet radiation, can result in temporary blindness as well as extreme discomfort to the eyes. Most severe welding-related eye injuries result in permanent blindness.

Welding helmets are often the first line of defense. Helmets can be manufactured with filter lens that can shade the eyes at a level that corresponds to that of the arc radiation generated by the application, as laid out in OSHA standard 1910.252. There are two main types of welding helmets: those with passive lenses and those with auto-darkening filter (ADF) lenses.

  • Passive Lenses. Helmets with passive lenses feature a fixed shade glass or poly carbonate lens that the welder can see through to conduct his work. Usually, because the shade is very dark, the welder must raise the shade to prepare for work and then move the helmet back into place before the welding begins.
  • ADF Lenses. ADF lenses in helmets automatically darken in response to a change in light intensity. When the welding arc is struck, the lens instantly shifts to filter out the harmful light, and when not activated, the lens is light enough to see through easily. This allows the welder to have the helmet in place throughout the entirety of the work, greatly increasing the protection the helmet offers.

In addition to light protection, welders must also protect their eyes and head from flying debris, weld splatter and slag, and sparks and flame. Welding helmets can offer protection from these things as well as long as they are not outdated. Newer welding helmets are created out of lighter materials and designed to fit more comfortably on the head to reduce fatigue and soreness.

Hearing Protection. Since prolonged exposure to extreme noise can lead to hearing loss, welders must comply with OSHA’s noise standard, 29 CFR 1910. 95, which requires the use of hearing protection when the employee’s noise exposure exceeds an eighthour, time-weighted average sound level of 90 dBA.

For welders, ear plugs are often a go-to hearing protection device since they do not interfere with other PPE. Recent advances have made earplugs significantly more comfortable, and newer models provide higher levels of hearing protection and exert less pressure on the ear canal than older models. Like most forms of PPE, the more comfortable the equipment is, the more likely the workers is to wear them—and for more extended periods of time.

For those who are not welding, but are near the work, they can wear low-profile ear muffs. These are a versatile solution that can still be worn comfortably under the welding helmet, protecting the ears from noise but also from sparks or splatter entering the ear canal.

Protective Clothing. According to ANSI Z49.1-2012, Welding and Cutting (4.3), “Appropriate protective clothing for any welding or cutting operation will vary with the size, nature and location of the work to be performed. Clothing shall provide sufficient coverage and be made of suitable materials to minimize skin burns caused by sparks, spatter or radiation. Covering all parts of the body is recommended to protect against ultraviolet and infrared ray flash burn.”

Welders should wear oil-free, flame-resistant, non-melting protective apparel such as shirts, pants and caps. Approved styles include in-sleeves, aprons, coats, jackets, and coveralls. They can so wear leather leggings when necessary. Welders should stray away from wearing clothing that has cuffs or open pockets, as these can trap molten metal or sparks. Traditional materials (leather, cottons and wool) and more modern materials should offer comfort and protection for welders.

ANSI also recommends that welders wear protective, flame-resistant gloves with incorporated insulated linings to protect against high radiant energy. There is a variety of styles and materials depending on the frequency and mobility of the welding task.

Foot Protection. Welders must be protected all the way down to the toes. Because hazards like fire, heat, sparks, slippery surfaces and falling objects exist for the welders, they must be sure to wear protective footwear.

Welders should be donning footwear featuring flame-retardant leather, abrasion- and heat-resistant stitching, protective metatarsal shields and heavy-duty rubber outsoles that are heat-resistant to the highest temperature. Recent designs feature footwear that slips on, eliminating the potential for the risk of burn-through laces. For work environments that might include floors that are wet or greasy, foot protection styles should include anti-slip soles to help workers avoid falls.

Since welders spend the majority of their time standing, comfort plays a huge part in the PPE that covers their feet. Welders should look for footwear that features ergonomic design, improved cushioning technologies, wider toe boxes and lightweight foot beds.

Welding is a huge business, and protecting against every possible hazard is a delicate balancing act. Safety directors must access the work environment for hazards, engage welders in a conversation on safety and efficiency and select proper PPE that mitigate the top risks while allowing welders to be comfortable—all while remaining in compliance with industry standards.

This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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