How Does Welding Affect the Eyes?

I have a lot of patients who are welders and surprisingly many of them don’t know how welding actually affects their eyes, they just know that it can if they don’t wear their safety gear! Today I thought I would go over how welding affects the eye and the proper precautions to take to ensure that you are being safe as possible while welding. 

Arc Eye

Arc eye is a term used to describe how welding affects the cornea, the front surface of the eye. The medical term is photokeratitis. It is basically like a sunburn on the eye, ouch!

This happens from unprotected exposure to UV rays from the welding torch. Welding torches give off radiation over a broad range of wavelengths, from 200nm to 1,400nm.

UV Radiation

UV radiation is 200-400nm and is divided into 3 ranges;

  • UV-A (315 to 400nm)
  • UV-B (280 to 315nm)
  • UV-C (100 to 280nm).

UV-C and almost all UV-B are absorbed by the cornea. UV-A passes through the cornea and gets absorbed by the lens of the eye. Some UV radiation, visible light, and IR radiation can reach the retina. 

Welding Safety

If a welder isn’t wearing proper eye protection, the UV radiation from the torch can injure the cornea. When it gets damaged, the cells can slough off after several hours. This leaves the nerves of the cornea injured and exposed. Obviously, this can be extremely painful, similar to a bad sunburn. Symptoms include pain, tearing and redness, gritty eyes, blurry vision, and sensitivity to light. How much exposure does it take to cause this? It really depends on several factors such as intensity of the radiation, the distance from the torch, the angle it enters the eye, and the type of eye protection that the welder is using. Exposure to just a few seconds can cause arc eye and symptoms may not be felt until several hours afterwards.

Symptoms of Flash Burn Eye

Symptoms can appear anywhere from 30 minutes to 12 hours after exposure.

Welders aren’t the only people susceptible to this. Your eyes are at risk in any sunny, outdoor setting with reflective light surfaces. This can include sunlight reflecting off snow, a lake, the ocean, or white sand. UV lights or bulbs in tanning beds and sun lamps can cause this. UV lights or bulbs used in labs or germicide applications can as well. Broken or unshielded mercury vapor and metal halide light bulbs are often used in school gyms, streetlights, banks, stores, and arenas can also cause photokeratitis. 

Welding Flash Burn Eyes Home Treatment

Arc eye usually heals within a couple of days. Treatment for faster healing would be applying antibiotic eye drops for a few days to make sure that a bacterial infection doesn’t develop. To help with any discomfort, artificial tears and taking pain medication are recommended. If you wear contacts, take a break from them and wear glasses instead.

Things that Will Not Help Flash Burned Eyes

I have heard it all when it comes to treatments that won’t work. Things like a cut potato or letting a cat lick the eye are highly discouraged. A flash burn is again a sunburn of the eye and if you have a sunburn those things won’t help. Those things just increase the risk of an infection.

Long Term Effects from Repeated Flash Burns

Long-term exposure to UV light can also produce cataracts. This is due to UV radiation getting absorbed by the lens of the eye. It can also cause skin cancer. This is why it is so important to wear proper safety attire including safety glasses that filter out the correct wavelengths of light. When you are outside, wear sunglasses that block 100% of UV light. 

If you think you have symptoms of arc eye, it is recommended to call your optometrist right away to determine if it is arc eye or if there is another condition causing similar symptoms. 

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