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Protect Yourself Against the Hazards of Welding

Since hazardous conditions like high heat and toxic fumes are central to welding, it is no surprise that without strict safety procedures, injury, short- or long-term illness and potentially even death could occur when welding.  Though there are more than 80 different types of welding processes, each with its own set of concerns, many safety precautions are common. 

The central elements of welding make it dangerous in many different ways.  The welding “smoke” often contains extremely toxic substances such as arsenic, silica, carbon monoxide, lead, chromium and ozone which can produce acute and chronic conditions to just about any part of the body depending on which substance is present.  Conditions associated with welding are asthma, emphysema, lung cancer, skin diseases, hearing loss, chronic gastrointestinal problems and reproductive risks.  Some components of welding fume, for example cadmium, can be fatal in a short amount of time.

Furthermore, the intense heat from welding and sparks can cause burns, eye injuries and heat stroke.  The intense light can cause eye damage and increased skin cancer risk, not just to the welder, but to co-workers if it reflects off surrounding materials.  Excessive noise exposure can permanently damage a welder’s hearing.  Welders also have a high rate of musculoskeletal complaints including back injuries, shoulder pain, tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. 

OSHA standards cover many aspects of welding, including welding safety and safety training, welding in confined spaces, ventilation, fire and electrical safety and protective equipment.  Welders should receive extensive training on the safe use of equipment, safe work practices and emergency procedures, and insist on safe working conditions before they weld.

Before beginning a welding job, the hazards for that particular environment need to be identified since risks vary based on the type of welding, materials to be welded and environmental conditions.  Make sure you know what you are welding before you start.  OSHA requires that employers keep material safety data sheets (MSDSs) to identify the hazardous materials used in welding, and the fumes that may be generated.  Only after identifying the hazard can appropriate safety controls be implemented.

Some general precautions to take include:

·  Keep areas clear of equipment, cables and hoses and use safety lines or rails to prevent slips and falls;

· To prevent fires, only weld in areas that are free of combustible materials;

· Be aware of the symptoms of heat stroke (fatigue, dizziness, loss of appetite, nausea, abdominal pain).  Protect against it through appropriate ventilation, shielding, rest breaks and frequent drinks;

· Wear hearing protection in excessively noisy environments.  OSHA requires employers to test noise levels and, in many instances, provide free hearing protection and annual hearing tests;

· Prevent musculoskeletal injury through proper lifting, changing positions, working at a comfortable height and minimizing vibration;

· Prevent electrical shock by wearing dry gloves and rubber-soled shoes, using an insulating layer on surfaces that can conduct electricity and by grounding the piece being welded and the frame of all electrically powered machines;

· Guard all machines with moving parts to prevent clothing, hair or fingers from getting caught;

· Always wear personal protective equipment including fire-resistant gloves, high-top hard-toed shoes, leather apron, face shields, flame-retardant coveralls, safety glasses and helmets;

· Use shielding to protect other people in the work area from the light of the welding arc, heat and hot spatter;

· Maintain proper local exhaust ventilation and general ventilation;

· Store work clothes separately from street clothes since and have them laundered by the employer since they may be contaminated with highly toxic materials; and

· Receive yearly medical exams.

Because dangerous levels of toxic fumes can build quickly in a confined space, all workers who enter hazardous areas, either on a regular basis or in an emergency situation, should be trained on use of safety equipment, rescue procedures, self-contained breathing apparatus and proper methods of entering and exiting a confined space.  Additional special safety precautions are also necessary for various other specialized welding including high-pressure gas welding, laser welding and electronic beam welding.