More than 100 years after the invention of the arc welding helmet, eye injuries continue to be the most common acute injury suffered by welders. More than 30 years since the first auto-darkening welding lenses offering continuous UV/IR protection for the welders eyes were released, welders continue to use passive welding lenses or nothing at all. Even with all the available information on the hazards of welding, "eye trauma is still the leading cause of blindness worldwide. Welding and grinding are responsible for 29% of all eye injuries"*.
However, even once the correct eye protection is in place, increasing knowledge about the health hazards associated with breathing welding fumes and gases above certain concentrations emphasises the need to educate, train and provide welders with appropriate respiratory protection. Illness due to welding fumes can be instant or insidious, taking weeks, months or sometimes years to become apparent.
Short term effects include -
- Eye and skin irritation
- Nausea and other gastrointestinal effects
- Headache and muscle ache
- Metal fume fever
- Pulmonary oedema (fluid in the lungs)
Long term effects include -
Increased risk of cancer in lung, larynx and urinary tract
- Bronchitis, asthma and pneumonia
- Emphysema and siderosis
- Ulcers & kidney damage
- Heart and skin disease
- Damage to the central nervous system and brain (Parkinson's disease etc)
- Brain damage - click here to read more about the links between welding and brain damage
In general it is the responsibility of the employer to identify any hazards that are found in the working environment and to provide workers with adequate protection. Good engineering controls and work practices are imperative. For example, it's important, when feasible, to use local and source-exhaust ventilation to remove harmful fumes and gases. Where possible, less hazardous materials should be substituted. Material safety data sheets (MSDS) should be reviewed to identify any hazards that might be associated with the specific welding job. In many cases, engineering controls alone can't reduce exposure levels adequately. For improved respiratory protection auto-darkening welding helmets with powered or supplied air systems can be implemented to provide air 50 to 100 times cleaner than the air the welder would otherwise be breathing.
Welding safety may be the employer’s responsibility but welding safety awareness is everyone's responsibility. The welder isn't the only person who can be affected adversely by exposure to welding arc or fume. Conditions that used to be considered as "acceptable" are now being questioned by welders, unions and companies. Everyone who works within a business can be an agent of change.
Operator training is imperative. It's no good having the correct safety measures and products in place if they are being used incorrectly or not at all. A training schedule should be put in place for all new safety products. Purchasing safety equipment from a brand who will train the welders in the correct use and maintenance procedures, is a very important but often overlooked factor when assessing what welding equipment to use. When it comes to respiratory protection, consumables and filters must be changed at suitable intervals to maintain the desired protection. Signage in the workplace is also very important when it comes to warning non-welders of the location and hazards of welding. Australian Standard AS 1319 includes signage for welding and personal protective equipment and can be sourced from safety supply companies.
The relevant Australian Standards for personal protective equipment that employers and employees alike should take note of are as follows:
- AS/NZS1337 & AS/NZS1337.1 – Eye and Face Protection
- AS/NZS1338.1 - Eye Protection for Welding
- AS/NZS1716 - Respiratory Protection
- AS/NZS1801 - Head Protection
- AS/NZS1270 - Hearing Protection
If welders undertake any grinding then the welding helmet/visor should comply with AS/NZS1337.1 or AS/NZS1337 for high impact, otherwise the impact protection is not suitable. Please note that ANSI (US) and EN (European) standards are not interchangeable with Australian Standards.
Occupational Exposure Limit (OEL) standards for airborne contaminants like welding fume are set by government health organisations. However, even when adhering to the OEL the welding environment can be 100 times worse than the clean air quality standards set in large cities. Therefore, respiratory protection should always be recommended and used, even if the welder’s exposure is within the OEL.
Please note that mixing respiratory system components with non-matching respiratory helmets from multiple manufacturers will void compliance with Australian Standards and can leave you unprotected.
Australian Standards compliant, high impact auto-darkening welding helmets, if used correctly, will ensure that eye injuries are a thing of the past in the workplace when welding.
When it comes to respiratory protection, it is a little more complicated and no simple 'rule of thumb' basic level of safety gear will suffice for every welding task. Respiratory protection is always recommended - whether it be a disposable, reusable, powered or supplied air respirator. However, when deciding on suitable respiratory protection you should always take into account your individual circumstances and any relevant local standards. Selection of the right respiratory protective equipment is straightforward, once the airborne hazard has been identified and quantified. Respiratory protective equipment should be selected using accurate information on the toxicity of the various airborne hazards and the amount present in the working environment. Therefore, it is essential that air monitoring is regularly carried out, even when respiratory protective equipment is used. If the contaminant levels in the air increase, a different type of respirator or other controls may have to be used. Powered or supplied air may not be suitable for your personal requirements - neither form of protection should be used if the atmosphere is classed as Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health (IDLH) or in a confined space as per AS2865 or local standards.
When it comes to welding safety products, the cliché - "you get what you pay for" - has never rung more truly. Welding PPE should always be selected based on the individual’s circumstances, not the price. Choose quality brands that comply with Australian standards, have dedicated pre and post sales training and have spare parts and consumables readily available. At the end of the day, you only have one pair of eyes and one set of lungs - how much is your safety or the safety of your welders worth??
*Imberger, A. Altman., Watson, W., Altmann, A., Unintentional adult eye injuries in Victoria., Monash University Accident Research Centre - Report #137 - 1998