Welding Without Worry: Simple Safety Steps

Although macho types may enjoy watching TV daredevils who weld without any safety gear, this practice is worse than just ill-advised entertainment. By its very nature, welding has the potential to cause serious injuries. But if you understand the hazards and how to guard against them, you can safely pursue a variety of rewarding projects. Here's a review of the basics to get you started.

Personal protection
Like firemen, welders need appropriate clothing to protect them from burns. The most common of all welding injuries, burns, typically result from sparks that land on bare skin, though welding arcs can also cause burns to the skin and eyes.

In general, protective clothing must allow freedom of movement while still providing adequate coverage against burns from sparks, weld spatter and radiation. Because of its durability and fire-resistance, wool or treated cotton is preferable to synthetics, which can melt.

Welders should always wear long sleeves and pants. Avoid rolling up sleeves and pant-cuffs because sparks or hot metal can find their way into folds. To keep sparks from falling into your boots, never tuck pants into them. Leather high-top work boots with steel toes are recommended, especially during heavy work. Finally, always wear heavy, flame-resistant gloves, such as leather, to protect your hands from burns, cuts, radiation and electric shock.

Potential hazards
Burns are just one type of risk inherent to welding. To adequately protect yourself against injury, always be mindful of the following hazards, as well:

Arc rays — Looking directly at the arc without protection can cause temporary or even permanent eye damage. The primary preventive measure is to wear a welding helmet with a lens of the proper shade. To find the proper shade, choose a filter that's too dark to see the arc and then move to lighter shades without dropping below the minimum rating. Shade numbers are marked on the filter plates. Also, wear safety glasses with side shields or goggles to protect your eyes from flying particles.

Electric shock — This is one of the most serious risks in welding. Shock hazards fall into two categories: primary-voltage (from welder input; typically 230 to 460 volts) and secondary-voltage (from welder output; typically 20 to 100 volts).

Only a qualified electrician should connect input power (and ground), and only a qualified technician should repair a welder. Remember, turning off the welder power switch does not turn off the power inside the welder.

Whenever you are welding, insulate yourself to protect against shock. Wear dry gloves with no holes. Moisture increases the potential for and severity of electrical shock, so if you're working in wet conditions or perspiring heavily, carefully insulate your body from "live" electrical parts including the electrode and metal parts of the electrode holder. Also, keep dry insulation between your body and the metal being welded. Never touch an electrode or metal parts of the electrode holder with skin or wet clothing. And make sure your welding cable and electrode-holder insulation are in good condition.

Fumes and gases — Keeping your head out of the fume plume and using adequate ventilation are key to avoiding overexposure to hazardous materials in welding fumes and gases. For information about how to protect yourself, see the material safety data sheet (MSDS) for the electrode you're using.

When welding mild steel, natural ventilation is usually considered sufficient, provided that the room or welding area is at least 10,000 cu. ft. for each welder. (That's an area about 25 x 25 ft. with a ceiling height of 16 ft.) Be sure that partitions or other structures do not block cross-ventilation.

In situations that don't meet these requirements, use mechanical ventilation and exhaust equipment. You may need to wear an approved respirator if ventilation is inadequate. For specific recommendations, read the product label and MSDS that comes with the electrode you are using.

Fire and explosions — A welding arc can reach 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit or more, but the heat of the arc alone is generally not a fire hazard. The danger stems from the intense heat of welding materials and from sparks and bits of molten metal, which can spray as far as 35 ft. Keep your work area free of flammable materials, or cover them with a fire-resistant shield. And always keep fire extinguishers nearby.

Understanding the dangers that welding hazards pose doesn't need to scare you off – as long as you wear the right gear and take the proper precautions, you can safely hone your skills. And if a camera crew should happen to stop by your shop, you'll be well-prepared to demonstrate your commitment to good sense over showmanship.