Between UV radiation and flying debris, welding can certainly cause damage to your eyes, but only if you don’t observe the correct safety protocol. Since 25% of all welding injuries are eye-related, proper eye protection on the job is a serious issue.
The good news, though, is that most of these eye injuries are preventable, and the bulk are also reversible. To put that into perspective, fully 95% of welders sustaining eye injuries are back at work within a week, while over 50% return within two days.
The debris kicked up when you’re brushing, grinding, or chipping is potentially hazardous for unprotected eyes. What tend to get more press, though, are the ultraviolet and infrared rays that both the welding arc itself and the molten metal generate. We’ll glimpse now at why this is such a thorny issue for welders.
All the main types of welding produce ultraviolet, visible spectrum, and infrared radiation. Since reflected light can also carry radiation, your eyes can be damaged from the arcs of other welders, too. Ultraviolet radiation (UVR) in particular gets absorbed in the lens and cornea and leads to swollen, painful eyes. Fortunately, this is seldom permanent.
Eye damage brought about in this manner is called photokeratitis or “welder’s flash.” While intensely painful, it’s not irreversible. That said, ongoing exposure to this type of radiation can yellow both the lens and cornea over time. When this happens, you’ll struggle with contrast in your vision.
Symptoms of welder’s flash include the following:
- Pain – anywhere from mild to severe – in one or both eyes
- Irritation of the eyes
- Blurred vision
- Increased sensitivity to light
- Watering eyes
- Bloodshot eyes
In the worst case scenario, you can experience permanent retinal damage leading to cataracts. Fleeting (if painful) eye problems from welding are far more common than serious and permanent issues, but safety is still paramount, so you need to make sure you protect yourself when you’re in the shop
How to Protect Your Eyes When Welding
The first thing you need in place is an ANSI-approved helmet. All auto-darkening helmets that meet ANSI Z87.1 standards offer full protection against both ultraviolet and infrared rays.
However, since so much welding work is done with the helmet up, this is not enough if you want to safeguard your eyes. Make sure you also wear safety glasses with full UV protection. You can opt for clear or shaded glasses depending on what you feel most comfortable with.
UV protection has nothing to do with how dark the lenses of your glasses are. In fact, dark glasses that lack adequate UV protection can be worse than wearing none at all. Your pupils will dilate in the dark, exposing your retinas to unfiltered ultraviolet rays. Look for glasses with 100% UV protection, and don’t skimp by looking for the cheapest pair you can find.
Since you can also suffer from indirect exposure, you need to protect your eyes even if you’re standing as much as 50 feet from someone else who’s welding.
You should also wear a face shield over your glasses when you’re arc welding. When you’re gas welding, you’ll need a shield and glasses shade-rated anywhere from 3 to 8.
Is It Only Radiation That Can Damage Your Eyes When Welding?
No flash burns is the most serious and common causes of eye injuries when welding, radiation isn’t the only thing that puts your eyes at risk. There are many other jobs in welding workshops that fling particles into the air, any of which are potentially harmful if your eyes remain unprotected.
Angle grinders send debris flying, and any kind of cutting tools, from band saws to chop saws, have the same capacity to emit projectiles. Sanding, buffing, and notching pipe are also potentially hazardous for the same reason.
Thousands of people every year are not just injured at work but blinded as well. Even sadder than that, 90% of all eye injuries are preventable if you wear the correct eye protection.
Welder’s flash is an occupational hazard, but it’s one you don’t need to experience if you take sensible safety precautions. With helmets, safety glasses, and protective clothing, you can shield yourself from welder’s flash and much more serious eye injuries.
Don’t become a statistic just because you couldn’t immediately find your glasses and decided to take a chance. Wear them at all times, even if takes a few minutes to rustle up your safety equipment.