Arc welding -- a process used to melt and fuse metals -- is one of many occupations that pose hazards to the eyes. Welding arcs give off high-energy visible light as well as infrared (IR) and ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Overexposure to any of these forms of radiation can be dangerous. Therefore, if you are a welder, it's important to know what effects arc welding can have on your vision.

Effects of Radiation On the Eyes

UVC radiation can be the most harmful to your eyes; however, high exposure to UVB radiation can cause pingueculae and pterygia -- growths on the surface of the eye that can affect the cornea and distort vision. Although UVA radiation has shorter wavelengths and is less intense than UVB radiation, UVA radiation can pass through the cornea to the lens of the eye. UV and infrared radiation that penetrate the eye can reach the retina and cause damage.

Welders' Eye

Ultraviolet radiation can damage the ocular surface (front) and mucous membrane (conjunctiva) of the eye. Welders' eye, more commonly known as conjunctivitis, can cause reddened eyes, sensitivity to light, and pain. Discomfort ranges from mild pressure to intense pain.

Symptoms of welders' eye may not occur for several hours after exposure to UV light, although just a few seconds of exposure can affect your eyes. Just how long it takes before you experience symptoms depends on the:

  • Distance from the welding arc

  • Type of eye protection you wear

  • Intensity of the radiation

  • Direction from which radiation enters the eye

Arc Flash

Often the bright light welding generates temporarily blinds the eyes when the iris muscles do not close the pupil far enough or fast enough to keep some of the brightness from reaching the retina. Arc flash can be painful and lasts longer than flash blindness -- a temporary loss of vision that lasts for only a few seconds or minutes. Arc flash, when it burns the cornea, can cause temporary or permanent blindness.

Blue Light Hazard

In addition to the risks of ultraviolet radiation to the eyes of arc welders, retinal damage also can occur from visible light. What is known as the blue light hazard can temporarily or permanently scar the retina. Caused by the retina's sensitivity to blue light (higher frequency light waves), the condition can lead to blindness. Therefore, it is necessary to wear adequate eye protection when arc welding.

While blue light plays a role in visibility, the risk of damage to the retina from overexposure increases if the retinal tissue is already weakened by age, environmental pollutants, or other eye injuries or diseases. Research suggests that changes in the retina caused by welding arcs can lead to blurred vision, decreased visual acuity, or a blind spot in your field of vision. Some individuals recover from retinal injury related to arc welding within a few weeks. Other individuals continue to suffer symptoms after several months.

Cataracts and Macular Degeneration

Studies suggest that long-term exposure to UV light may lead to the development of cataracts and macular degeneration in some people. Cataracts, which cloud vision, can lead to blindness if left untreated. Prescription lenses can help for a while, but surgery to remove the cataract eventually may be necessary to restore vision.

Since both ultraviolet and blue light may contribute to macular degeneration -- the loss of central vision -- implanting a blue light-filtering intraocular lens during cataract surgery may help prevent development of the disease. Although there is no cure, treatment can slow or prevent the disease from progressing.

To learn more, contact an optometrist clinic like Arizona Eye Specialists