How to protect yourself from head to toe
September 26, 2002
Dressing properly for welding involves many facets of safety, including proper use of personal protective equipment and welding tools as well as protective apparel. Welders should be aware of the hazards they will face on their job and know to dress for them so they can protect themselves from all possible potential welding dangers, from sparks and spatter to fumes and electrocution.
It's no secret that welding can be a dangerous job. Every year an estimated 562,000 workers risk exposure to chemical and physical hazards during welding, cutting, and allied processes, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). But if you are knowledgeable about safety and wear the proper personal protection equipment (PPE), welding can be a safe and enjoyable occupation.
When it comes to needing a wide array of PPE, you rank at the top of the list.
It's the manager's job to communicate hazards and safety precautions to workers. OSHA's welding regulation 1910.252, the standard for basic safety procedures, is the baseline from which to work. Protecting employees--a company's most important resource--above and beyond baseline standards is the goal of every safety-conscious employer.
Fortunately, safety industry professionals have made great strides in developing comprehensive PPE to address welding safety concerns. While the OSHA PPE standard regulates the use of protective gear, it's up to the employer to select the best product for the job at hand and train employees in its correct use and application.
Before selecting PPE, the safety officer should perform a hazard assessment, observing welders on the job. This analysis includes breaking each job into separate components and determining what equipment is right for each step.
Safety officers should identify hazards and remove them from the process whenever possible. Once appropriate PPE has been determined, a second job safety analysis should occur about a month later. This allows the safety analyst to ensure that the equipment chosen works in practice or determine if it needs to be adjusted or changed.
You face safety hazards from every angle, from flying sparks and molten metal to dangerous arc rays, built-up fumes and gases, and electrocution. With each hazard comes a recommended course for protecting you from it.
Before studying which procedures and products are available to meet these challenges, you should arrive on the job properly outfitted. Wear denim or heavy cotton work pants without cuffs because these materials are best-suited for shedding sparks, and cuffless trousers won't trap sparks.
A long-sleeved shirt with a button-down collar provides added protection, but be careful of pockets that can trap sparks. Shoes with safety toes complete the outfit. The shoelaces should be made of rawhide, not a synthetic material, so they won't melt.
To shield your eyes and face from flying particles, molten metal, liquid chemicals, acids, chemical gases, and light radiation, you need to wear eye and face protection. Even brief exposure to ultraviolet and infrared rays produced by cutting metal can cause an eye burn known as welder's flash, which occurs when you get an eyeful of such rays. This condition can result in discomfort, swelling, fluid excretion, and even temporary blindness.
Welding helmets with filter lenses are considered secondary protection and must be used together with safety glasses or goggles with side shields. Select the filter shade or lens from those listed in the chart in the OSHA standard for eye and face protection, 1910.133 (a) (5). Green glass filters and lenses are one option. They contain ferric and ferrous iron, which absorb UV and near-UV radiation.
Check to be sure glass filters or lenses contain iron. If they don't, check for blue-light transmissibility. You also might consider autodarkening filters, which adjust to changes in light as you work, automatically switching the filters between light and dark when a stimulus, such as a welding arc, activates the light sensors. Check for visibility ratings as well--manufacturers should provide information on the percentage of visible light transmission with their product description.
A flame-retardant hood adds protection for the face, head, and neck. All eye and face protection must work in conjunction with head and respiratory protection, and it's imperative that the equipment fits and is comfortable.
To protect other workers stationed near a welding area, welding safety curtains made of opaque, woven material, such as silica fiber or heavy cotton, should be in place.
Flying sparks, shards of metal, and fire also are hazards in fabrication and maintenance or repair welding. Before you start a job, inspect the work area for combustible material, which should be moved at least 35 feet away from a welding station. A fire watch--a person standing nearby with a fire extinguisher--is crucial during welding. The fire watch can monitor flying sparks and other debris in a way that you can't when you're welding.
The amount of body and hand protection required varies with the process, electrode diameter, and procedure. Protective garments include capes with sleeves, chaps and leggings, bib and waist aprons, coveralls, spats, bib screens, and hoods.
Spats, which protect tops of shoes from sparks, strap into place or come attached to leggings or pants. Bib screens attach to the back of hard hats. Hoods cover the entire head. Gloves must meet both dexterity and heat protection requirements and must be able to shed sparks.
Heavy, flame-resistant materials such as woolen clothing or heavy cotton are preferable to lighter materials because they're more difficult to ignite. Leather overgarments and gloves are best at resisting heat and sparks, and chrome-tanned leather works better than leather tanned by other methods.
Leather also can provide a thermal barrier. Note that a 30-inch standard leather welder's coat weighs about 6 pounds. Newer, lighter-weight, breathable materials are making their way into the market slowly.
These materials include Nomex® Aramid, which is both flame- and spark-resistant; Indura Proban®, which is 100 percent cotton and flame-resistant; and Tuffweld®, made of flame-resistant, manmade materials. The same 30-in. coat made of any of these products weighs only 1 pound--quite a difference, especially in the hot summer.
Fumes and gases that naturally occur during welding are unique because they're made of a complex mixture of substances that aren't classified easily. These fumes can cause acute and chronic health problems if proper precautions aren't taken.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH), an "excess morbidity and mortality among welders appear to exist even when exposures have been reported to be below current OSHA PEL [permissible exposure limits] for the many individual components of welding emissions."
Companies must provide adequate natural or mechanical ventilation to make sure that exposure to hazardous concentrations of airborne contaminants are kept below minimum levels.
OSHA says that wherever possible, employers must eliminate contaminants through engineering controls, such as general and local ventilation, enclosure or isolation, and substitution of a less hazardous material or process.
You can reduce airborne contaminants by using various ventilation controls, such as roof or ceiling exhaust fans, as well as respiratory equipment. American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Z88.2 and ANSI Z88.6 set proper standards for selecting and using respirators. All respirators from leading manufacturers meet or exceed NIOSH requirements.
You can take some low-tech precautions to avoid breathing these fumes directly. Fumes commonly are referred to as the "flume plume," because fumes tend to rise in a column. Workers must position their head in a way to avoid inhaling these dangerous fumes directly.
Electrical shock is one of the most serious hazards you face on the job. Shock can cause burns, injury, and even death. Properly grounding your power supply is the primary way to avoid electrocution.
Improper grounding and the misinterpretation of terminology can lead to deadly mistakes.
For instance, many people misuse the term "ground connection" by calling the work lead connection the ground connection, when in fact it's not grounded properly at all. The work lead connection is the cable that comes from the power supply and connects to whatever will be welded.
Calling the work lead a ground lead implies incorrectly that the line is grounded safely. It is not. A special ground lead is needed to ground the power supply properly. This should be installed by a licensed electrician.
Wearing dry gloves and protective equipment, avoiding contact with water, and turning off equipment when it's not in use are other ways to protect yourself against electric shock.
Welding can be a dangerous profession, but when you're outfitted properly and your environment is safe, you shouldn't have to worry about life and limb just to do your job.
American National Standards Institute (ANSI), 1819 L St. N.W., 6th Floor, Washington, DC 20036, phone 202-293-8020, fax 202-293-9287, Web site www.ansi.org.
National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH), Hubert H. Humphrey Building, 200 Independence Ave. S.W., Washington, DC 20201, phone 800-356-4674, fax 888-232-3299, Web site www.cdc.gov/niosh/homepage.html.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), U.S. Department of Labor, 200 Constitution Ave. N.W., Washington, DC 20210, Web site www.osha.gov.