Over one-fourth of all welding, injuries are to the eye, according to a study done by the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety. The most at-risk workers are those in the commercial and industrial machinery, metal fabrication, and computer equipment industries. Helmets offer some protection, but the best way to avoid arc eye and other injuries are to select and wear the proper eye protection.
Despite the risk, workers don’t always wear proper eye protection; reasons such as discomfort, prescription lens wear, low perceived risk, and simple vanity are given. To avoid disabling injury, employers should stress the sources of welding eye injuries:
- Flying particles
- Photochemical and radiation burns (arc eye or “welder’s flash”) from UV and infrared radiation, as well as the welding machine’s bright blue light
- Chemical burns
To reduce the incidence of arc eye, workers should be educated on the dangers of welding, and employers should enforce eye safety rules and proper behavior in the welding shop.
Risks Associated with Cumulative Damage
The most common welding types (stick welding, metal arc, and oxyacetylene) all produce infrared, visible, and UV radiation. UV damage can occur quickly; this type of radiation is normally absorbed in the cornea, causing arc eye—a painful but temporary condition with symptoms including excessive tearing, pain, and swelling of the eye.
Most arc eye and other welding injuries are not permanent, and the majority of injured welders return to work within a couple of days to a week. However, injury can be permanent in rare cases, if the visible spectrum and infrared light penetrate through to the retina. The resultant injuries can include visual impairment, cataracts, and heightened sensitivity to glare and bright lights.
Many believe that the operator of the welding machine is the only person at risk of arc eye, but that is an inaccurate assumption. The welding arc is the primary source of UV radiation, but other nearby workers can sustain an injury (up to fifty feet away, as the UV reflects off of concrete, unpainted metal, and shiny surfaces). To avoid welder’s flash in other workers, everyone in close proximity to the welding area should wear proper eye protection.
Protection From Arc Eye: It’s About More Than the Helmet
Special helmets shield the welder from arc eye, but the bulk of the work is done with the helmet raised. Welders should always wear safety goggles with side shields, to protect from welder’s flash and against flying particles. ANSI Z87.1 protection is sufficient for most jobs, but higher-rated goggles should be worn when gas or arc welding.
Safety guidelines and warnings suggest that welders refrain from wearing contact lenses to avoid arc eye, even though research hasn’t found a link. The American Welding Society, the National Safety Council, and the Food and Drug Administration all acknowledge that contact lens wear can provide a limited amount of UV protection, but should not be worn in place of goggles or safety glasses.