Welding is one of the most hazardous occupations in construction. Traditionally, welders had to fear workplace injury from burns, electricity, and “welder’s flash” (blinding and diminished vision, see below). Recent studies have shown that toxic chemicals released from welding rods put welders at an additional workplace risk for less immediate but no less serious conditions of lung, brain, and nerve damage, such as manganism (Welders’ Parkinson’s disease).
Welding injuries in the workplace: fire & electrical
Welders make up over half a million workers in America’s workforce. Welding is also one of the most dangerous occupations because of the daily likelihood of workplace injury from burns and electricity.
Regardless of whether you’re welding outside using MMA welding or indoors with a GMAW welding system, science hasn’t figure out a way yet of putting two large pieces of metal together without a lot of heat at the point of the weld. The heat necessary for a weld is intense, and the dangers of welding injuries great. Spatter (hot metal) and sparks from the weld can cause second- and third-degree burns and ignite materials, including clothing. Before beginning any weld, make sure a Class C fire (“electrical fire”) extinguisher is nearby. Never use water because a lead’s electricity and water don’t mix. After any weld, the area should be observed to make sure the residual heat from the weld does not cause workplace fires and explosions.
Electrical shock is possible whenever electricity is present. Commonly confused by apprentice rod welders, the “ground connection” does not mean a “work lead” (the cable coming from the power supply connecting to what is to be welded). The work lead is not a grounding cable at all. A special ground lead from the power supply is necessary to be grounded safely. Simpler protections such as keeping your gloves dry and wearing your PPE (personal protective equipment) can prevent most electrical welding injuries.
Whether you’re hyperbaric welding underwater or doing TIG welding at a factory, it’s the managers’ job to explain the workplace hazards to their welders and to make sure that at least the minimum safety standards as per OSHA’s welding regulations (1910.252)are in place to prevent welding injuries.
Welding injuries: Arc radiation and welder’s flash
Welder’s Flash is one of the welding injuries that occur from the intense ultraviolet light, produced from the arc ray. Skin exposed during welding can develop sunburns from this radiation. Welders not given proper eye protection, or not keeping a safe distance from the arc, can develop a painful condition known as welder’s flash. These welding injuries are also knows as Arc Eye, or Flash Burns.
Symptoms of welder’s flash include tearing eyes, light sensitivity, and even intense burning from eyes that feel constantly dry. Welder’s flash symptoms typically occur a few hours after exposure and disappear within a day-and-a-half. Doctors usually prescribe antibiotic eye drops/ointments to prevent eye infection and pain killers. Sometimes an eye patch is required. Although rare, arc radiation can penetrate the retina and cause permanent retinal damage, including cataracts, diminished vision, and higher sensitivity to light. For many, the worst part of welding injuries, are the number of days missed, especially if these are unpaid.
Because of smoke and glare, welders sometimes position their heads too close to the arc and increase the risk for welder’s flash. Wearing cheaters (safety reading glasses) under the hood lets the welder get a better look at the weld and gauge distance. Auto-darkening helmets both protect the welder’s eyes and also prevent weld defects as the welder can better see to position the gun or electrode while the helmet is down.
Manganism: welders’ Parkinson’s Disease
Manganese, an element that destroys brain cells and causes nerve damage, is a material found in welding rods, electrodes, and wire. Welding releases these toxic manganese molecules which can then be inhaled. According to the EPA report on manganese dangers, “The primary target of manganese toxicity is the nervous system, and common symptoms of toxic exposure include ataxia, dementia, anxiety, a ‘mask-like’ face, and manganism, a syndrome similar to Parkinson’s disease.”
Though manganism resembles Parkinson’s disease, the causes of manganism are unique to manganese poisoning. Research published in the journal Experimental Neurology and elsewhere has found that exposure to manganese reduces the brain’s dopamine levels, creating damage not found in Parkinson’s disease. Of all the welding injuries discussed, this is the most insidious.
Dopamine is one neurotransmitter responsible for normal motor function. Both persons with Parkinson’s disease and manganism exhibit bradykinesia (slowed movement), problems with balance with a tendency to fall backwards, stiffness/rigidity, and difficult moving the face’s muscles. In later stages of manganism, the injured welder can experience short-term memory loss, slurred speech, sleep disorders, and impaired judgment. These symptoms can appear several months to several years after manganese welding exposure.
Welders with manganism’s Parkinson-like symptoms do not respond to levodopa and other treatments for Parkinson’s disease. In nearly all cases, manganism cannot be cured or reversed. The brain damage from manganism is permanent.
Source: The Consumer Justice Group, Protecting Workers’ Rights and Health