Arc Burn Happens 'In a Flash'

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Welding Equipment, Electrical

Eye damage
Experiencing “arc flash” can cause visible symptoms such as bloodshot or watery eyes. Image ©ink drop - stock.adobe.com

A worker welds a bucket in an equipment shop. He completes his task and pushes his face shield and glasses above his eyes to more clearly observe the work. Afterward, he strikes an arc to continue, immediately feeling the heat meet his unprotected eyes. Realizing he’s forgotten to lower his PPE, the worker quickly turns away—but it’s too late. The arc has already injured the eye and potentially the surrounding skin.

The next six to 12 hours are a waiting game as the welder anticipates the after effects.

Welding exposes workers to each of the three main types of ultraviolet (UV) rays: UVA, UVB, and UVC. UVC radiation is the highest energy portion of the UV radiation spectrum, causing skin burns and eye injuries. Ocular melanoma is a well-known risk of UV exposure from welding.

The only way humans can be exposed to UVC is from an artificial source, such as a lamp, laser, or in this case—welder.

Yuna Rapoport, M.D., an ophthalmologist specializing in cornea, refractive, and cataract surgery at Manhattan Eye in New York City, says unprotected welding can essentially cause an acute burn to the eyes—usually referred to as “arc flash” or “welder’s eye.” Both the cornea and conjunctiva (the white area of the eye) are affected.

What causes arc burn?

Any welding or cutting type of activity that requires an arc or plasma beam can cause arc burn.

“It only takes a moment without protection to cause [arc flash],” Dr. Rapoport says. “The burn usually happens right away. The eyes might not react instantly, but by the time [the welder is] in my office, they’re in a lot of pain. It can get worse as the day goes on.”

Depending on the duration and intensity of UV exposure, an injured welder will initially experience mild or severe pain within a few seconds to a few minutes after exposure. This can include visible symptoms such as bloodshot or watery eyes. Hours later, welders may begin experiencing intense tearing, sensitivity to light, or blurred vision. A feeling of grittiness in the eye, sometimes described as “the feeling of sand in the eyes,” may also occur.

In severe cases, the cornea will appear cloudy and opaque.

“At that point, the welder is essentially experiencing keratitis or photokeratitis, an eye condition that occurs when your eye is exposed to ultraviolet rays,” Dr. Rapoport says. “It literally feels like a sunburn on your eye. It’s incredibly painful.”

Without proper protection, workers can merely be in the proximity of a welding arc and still experience effects. Jerome Spear, a member of the American Society of Safety Professionals, works as a certified industrial hygienist and certified safety professional. He also worked at Chicago Bridge and Iron Co. for nine years, where he gained hands-on welding experience.

Spear says he experienced arc flash working inside a pressure vessel with various reflective alloy materials, such as stainless steel and inconel.

“I was a field engineer on a job, and since I was in an operating part of the plant, the customer required us to wear monogoggles...and they would fog up,” he says. “So I had pulled down my monogoggles for an extended period during the day, and there was welding going on inside of the vessel. I wasn’t directly exposed to the arc, but because the UV radiation reflected off the materials, I ended up experiencing arc flash.”

Kevin Beckerdite, global product manager at ESAB, says arc flash is more common than one might assume. 

“A pretty substantial portion, if not everybody...doing welding on a full-time basis has experienced a flash from their arc device,” he says. “Hopefully it happens once and you remember to lower your shield, or your equipment is functioning properly...but any more than once and you’re not [going to be] happy.”

The hours following an arc burn are touch-and-go.

Welding flash.

“It can get worse over the next 12 hours,” Dr. Rapoport says. “You can’t keep your eyes open at all, and you’re in excruciating pain. Most people just go and close their eyes in a dark place. Sometimes they put on a bandage contact lens or a special membrane on top as well. You are out of work and really out of commission in general.”

How long to recover from welding arc flash?

The timeframe for recovery looks different for everyone. Repeated incidents complicate or hinder the recovery process. In a healthy individual, arc burn should heal in three to five days.

“Typically, you want to keep your eyes rested,” Beckerdite says. “Keep them hydrated [with eye drops], and probably take a break from welding until you’re no longer experiencing discomfort. It’s a typical rest-and-recovery period.”

With repeated injury, Dr. Rapoport says arc burn can cause scarring of the cornea and cause damage to the epithelium, its protective layer. Eye cancers, like ocular melanoma, may also develop over time. 

“Eventually, the top layer of the epithelium won’t regrow or repopulate,” she says. “That’s a very big problem if it can’t regrow. You can also become more prone to scratches even [after arc burn] is completely healed. You really want to avoid repeat insults.”

Since many UV exposures stem from forgetting to pull a helmet back into its correct position, more modern helmets on the market now use what is called an “automatic darkening filter” (ADF). The device allows a worker to keep their helmet in the lowered position while working.

A traditional passive helmet uses a piece of glass or polycarbonate with a fixed shade. The operator is only able to see through the lense after an arc is initiated, and cannot adjust the shade tint. An auto-darkening helmet offers variable shades.

Using LCD technology, floating “crystals’’ inside an ADF automatically turn on their side upon detecting a welding arc, darkening the visor for the user. According to Beckerdite, this happens in less than a millisecond.

“It acts faster than the light is able to hit your eye, and it’s fully adjustable too,” he says. “You don’t have to raise the hood or anything. Passive filters are permanently dark. If you want to inspect your work after you’ve done some welding, you have to physically lift your hood. So if you forget to put your hood down, you’re in trouble.”

Even with ADF technology, Spear says the American Welding Society recommends that welding helmets be used as secondary protection.

“There is transient UV radiation in your safety helmet that can be reflected inside and back into your eyes,” he says. “So your primary eye protection is safety glasses—they should always be worn underneath the welding helmet. With safety glasses, we can be 10 times closer [to the arc] than if we weren’t wearing them.”

Does arc flash burn skin?

Ultraviolet radiation also harms the skin. Welders should be trained to cover their entire bodies as they are working. A welder that is indoors will generally wear long sleeved cotton or wool, preferably treated with flame-retardant coatings. These materials protect against pieces of hot metal as well as UV exposure. Denim and leather also offer protection, as do specialized bibs, jackets, gloves, and aprons.

“If you don’t cover your skin, over time—and I’m talking like 10 minutes—the UV will also give you a mild burn on your skin,” Beckerdite says. “Even standing 5 to 10 feet from the welding area.”

Skin exposed to welding UV can experience effects similar to a sunburn. It comes with the risks noted by the FDA: UVB rays have a short wavelength that reach the outer layer of your skin (the epidermis). UVA rays have a longer wavelength that can penetrate the middle layer of your skin (the dermis). Both are damaging to cell DNA.

Over periods of long-term exposure, it’s possible to develop skin cancers.

Purvisha Patel, M.D., is a skin cancer surgeon, cosmetic surgeon, and general dermatologist practicing out of Memphis, Tennessee. She’s seen a significant amount of cancers due to welding, usually appearing on the fingers, hands, neck, and chest.

She says exposure is also common where clothing begins and ends—such as exposed skin on the hands where gloves cut off and sleeves begin.

“Welders get burns in these areas because heavier protective clothing gets too hot, so they tend to take it off,” Dr. Patel says. “The burn usually presents with redness, but it depends on your skin type. People with olive skin might not show any kind of redness but will receive the same amount of damage.”

Burns can also cause skin tenderness and pain. In extreme cases, blistering can also occur.

“[To protect these areas] using a physical sunscreen is also very important,” Dr. Patel says. “That’s actually going to deflect that radiation off the skin and any areas that are exposed.”

Welding also exposes the skin to various chemicals, metals, and gas fumes. According to Dr. Patel, metals such as chromium, nickel, zinc, cobalt, cambium, and tungsten, when exposed to the skin, can enhance UV sensitivity.

“[Those metals] irritate the top of the skin and make the ability to burn more likely,” she says. “If you’re welding, you’re basically breaking those things down and they [become] airborne. There are also bits of metal that can fly into the skin. If they stay in the skin, in an area with sun damage and UV radiation, we’ve seen skin cancers develop because it’s an area of chronic inflammation.”

Those metals create a “foreign body” reaction, according to Dr. Patel.

“We might even see a little piece of metal come out of the tumor,” she says. “It isn’t super common, mostly because people are taking a lot of precautions now. But it is common enough to where it needs to be recognized as a problem.”

When it comes to recovery, welders want to ensure they clean the area well to remove any metals that could have entered the skin. According to Dr. Patel, applying ice or an aloe gel to the area could help shut down the body’s inflammatory response. Seeing a board-certified dermatologist is also crucial if the skin starts to blister or bleed, she says.

Though a welding burn is similar to a sunburn, there are several additional factors that determine how the skin will react.

“One could make an argument that welding is actually a little more dangerous, because it’s so much closer to the skin,” Dr. Patel says. “It depends on what’s being done, what body surface area is getting exposed, and for how long it’s been exposed. That’s all going to play into how at-risk you are.”