Welders are told that they must protect their eyes, and their skin, from the arc produced by their torch. But what is it they are protecting themselves from? Do welding torches produce radiation? What should we be worried about when operating a welding torch?
The first question is, does welding produce radiation? Welding arcs produce radiation at 200nm up to 1.4 micrometers. This means that welding arcs are giving off UV radiation, and IR radiation, and visible light.
A lot of people don’t realize that anything that produces heat and light is also giving off radiation. The question that people need to ask about welding is what the radiation produced by a welding arc can do. The UV radiation can injure the cornea, and that is why welders are told to wear goggles.
Measuring the Output of Radiation from Welding
Welding arcs glow brightly, and that glow comes from the radiation that the arc produces. Part of the radiation is visible light, in the 400 to 700nm range, while the art of the radiation is infrared (700nm to 1,400nm), and is the part that produces heat. There is also some UV radiation, i the A, B, and C ranges of 200 to 400nm.
UV-A radiation can travel through the cornea and be absorbed by the lens of your eye, while UV-B and UV-C will be absorbed by the cornea. Visible light, IR, and some parts of the UV spectrum will reach the retina. Because the radiation put out by a welding arc can be intense, you should protect your eyes adequately.
Welding Radiation and Your Eyesight
Welders who do not wear proper protective gear are at risk of developing arc eye. This is a term used to describe damage to the mucous membrane of the eyeball. It is more common in the medical world, called conjunctivitis. The symptoms of arc eye can range from a mild feeling of having “something in the eye,” to severe pain. Other symptoms include:
- Tearing up and redness of the eye, or a bloodshot appearance
- Sensitivity to light
Long term exposure to radiation from a welding arc can cause severe damage. Even short term exposure, for just a few seconds, can lead to arc eye. The severity of the condition depends on:
- The brightness of the welding arc
- The angle that the arc was viewed from and how close the person was to it
- Whether or not they were wearing protection
- Whether the protection was good enough for that type of welding torch
You do not have to be the person welding to suffer from arc eye. Bystanders catching exposure to light are equally at risk. So, all must be adequately protected. Symptoms may not appear until several hours after the exposure to the UV radiation occurred.
Long term exposure to UV light can cause cataracts, which can lead to loss of vision. These can be treated, but it is still best to avoid them. Prolonged exposure to light from a welding torch and the associated UV radiation can be very damaging.
Why Welding-arc Radiation Matters for Your Skin
The UV radiation that comes from a welding arc is the same UV radiation that comes from the sun but in different proportions. Direct exposure to UV radiation from a welding arc, or to reflected radiation that comes from a welding torch and is bounced back from a metal surface, can be damaging to the skin. It can cause “sunburn” and can also increase your risk of skin cancer.
Visible light and infrared radiation are unlikely to do any damage to the skin. But UV radiation can be harmful, so it is best to aim to limit your exposure. While academic studies into the link between welding and skin cancer are limited, studies do suggest there is a strong link between welding and increased risk of ocular melanoma.
Most welders protect their body and hands well when welding. This is likely the reason there is not a large body of evidence suggesting that welders are at an increased risk of skin cancer. To most welders, the need to cover their skin is obvious, because people do not want burns from hot sparks while working. Arc welders should take care to reduce their exposure to UV radiation, across the full spectrum.
UVA, B, and C are all present in welding arcs. UVA penetrates the skin but does not tend to damage DNA. UVB and UVC are thought to be more damaging. UVB is the one that gets the most “bad press” in terms of skin cancer, because it is found in sunlight, and is thought to damage DNA. UVC is also found in daylight but is usually absorbed into the atmosphere before reaching ground level. So for the average person who does not weld, the risk from exposure to it is minimal. Welders are not like the average population, however, and they are exposed to UVC daily.
There hasn’t been a lot of research done on how damaging UVC is to the skin and to DNA. But it’s entirely possible it could be as damaging (or more harmful) than UVC. Until there’s more evidence available, limit your exposure as much as possible. Especially considering welders are exposed to highly concentrated doses of this type of radiation, at close range, and regularly.
Does Welding Produce Ionizing Radiation?
The light produced by welding is ‘non-ionizing.’ Welding does not produce ionizing radiation such as X-rays or gamma rays. When most people think of radiation, they are thinking of that kind of ionizing radiation.
This means that exposure to a welding torch will not turn you into the incredible hulk, or turn items around you ‘radioactive.’ That doesn’t mean you can safely skip general precautions while welding, though. UV radiation is still something that should be feared and respected.
Protecting Yourself When Welding
To stay safe while welding, wear thick, heavy, and non-flammable clothing to protect your body and gloves to protect your hands and wrists. You are at risk of both ‘sunburn’ and burns from heat and sparks while welding.
Always wear a mask while welding. It’s tempting to skip this precaution if you just want to do a short bead weld, but that is never a good idea. Even if you’ve done so in the past and felt like you’ve gotten away with it, you may have done some damage to your eyes that has not surfaced yet. A proper welding mask will protect your face and eyes and will ensure that you can weld for many years to come without damaging your eyesight.
Safety In Your Workshop
The person welding is not the only person who needs protecting from the radiation emitted by a welding torch while it is in use. People who pass through the shop could suffer damage to their eyesight if they are exposed to the intense light from a welding torch.
Do you remember burning magnesium ribbon in science class while at school? If you looked directly at the ribbon while it was burning, then you might have ended up with a white blob in your vision. This blob may have persisted for a while, even after the ribbon had burnt out. A similar thing can happen with welding torches. The arc can ‘burn an impression’ onto your eye, even if you see it only for a fraction of a second. The eye will recover, as long as you didn’t look at it for too long, but it’s something that is best avoided.
Using proper signage to alert people to the fact that someone is welding in the workshop can help, and requiring people to wear safety glasses with a tint may also be a good idea, depending on how well you can control the flow of people in the workshop.
Welding at Home
If you are a hobbyist welding at home, then you should educate the other people who live with you about the dangers of the welding torch. Keep pets and children out of the area where you weld. Ideally, weld in a garage where passers-by won’t accidentally be exposed to the radiation from the torch. Safety should be your number-one consideration.
Welding helmets on the market will react to extreme light, being relatively clear when you are not welding, and tinting within hundredths of a second when you use the torch. These can be useful if you feel that standard visors are too dark to make it easy for you to operate the torch and manipulate the materials you are working with.
Can welding cause cataracts? Long-lasting direct exposure to UV light can produce cataracts in some individuals. Direct exposure to infrared light can warm the lens of the eye and produce cataracts over the long term.
Can welding cause skin cancer? Electric arc and laser welding produce UV radiation, a recognized carcinogen. Direct exposure can trigger sunburn, eye damage (welder’s flash), skin cancer, eye cancer malignancy and cataracts (clouding on the lens of the eye).