Welding: Reducing Health and Safety Risks

Welding poses serious threats to health and safety. Before starting any job, workers need to be armed with knowledge about the dangers that arise in different welding situations.

Smoke and fumes generated by welding are the most common health risks, as they are extremely toxic. Substances found in smoke can affect the lungs, heart, kidneys, and central nervous system.

Exposure can have short- and long-term effects. Short-term effects include "metal fume fever" that causes symptoms such as irritation of the eyes, nose, chest, and respiratory tract, along with cases of the chills, muscle ache, coughing, fatigue, and nausea.

Long-term health effects include increased risk of lung, larynx, and urinary tract cancers due to cancer-causing agents present in welding smoke. Also, welders face chronic lung problems such as bronchitis, asthma, pneumonia, and emphysema, as well as decreased lung capacity. Other possible health problems include heart disease, skin diseases, hearing loss, chronic stomach inflammation, and kidney damage.

Some effects even can be fatal. Fumes and gases produced by welding can be deadly at high doses.

Other health hazards include:

* Burns. Intense heat of welding and sparks can cause burns to the body and eyes.
* Eye damage. Intense light from arc welding can cause damage to the retina. Infrared radiation may damage the cornea and create cataracts. Invisible ultraviolet light can cause "arc eye" or "welder's flash" after even a brief exposure.
* Musculoskeletal injuries. Because of the awkward positions they move their bodies when they work, welders often suffer back injuries, shoulder pain, tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and knee joint diseases.

Safety Hazards
Though it usually doesn't involve high voltage, welding presents a danger of electric shock. Therefore, dry gloves and rubber-soled shoes should always be worn. Any electric-powered equipment must be grounded.

Fire and explosion risks are more prevalent and dangerous. The intense heat and sparks produced can ignite any combustible or flammable materials present. Thus, welding should only be performed in areas free of materials like wood, paper, plastics, chemicals, and liquid gases.

Health and safety risks can be greatly compounded when welders work in confined spaces. If ventilation is poor, dangerous concentrations of toxic fumes and gases can build up very quickly, and high concentrations of some fumes and gases can be very explosive. All workers should be trained in proper procedures for entering, working in, and exiting a confined space.

Reducing Welding Hazards
Because of the many health and safety risks involved, welders need to follow many precautions. Some are specific to certain situations, but they should always:

* Identify the unique hazards of a particular situation.
* Use ventilation to remove harmful fumes and gases.
* Use shielding to protect other people from heat, hot molten metal, and the light of the welding arc.
* Keep their heads positioned away from fumes.
* Remove flammable or combustible materials.
* Make sure equipment is properly maintained.
* Remove equipment and machines that could cause trips or falls.
* Undergo regular medical exams due to exposure from emissions.

All welders should receive training on safe use of equipment and processes, safe work practices, and emergency procedures. While on the job, they should always wear personal protective equipment including eye protection (e.g., helmets, goggles, face shields); protective clothing (e.g., fire-resistant gloves, headcap, hard-toed shoes, flame-retardant coveralls); hearing protectors (ear plugs or ear muffs); and respirators.

-- Dan Harvey
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