Have you ever wondered about the dangers of plasma cutting? Well, working with plasma can be incredibly gratifying. You always feel an immense sense of power when you work with a welding and cutting tool – that’s part of the appeal, after all – and that’s never truer than when you get to work with the unbridled power of plasma. When superheated into plasma, the cutting arc emitted by these welding machines can be as hot as the surface of the sun.
What are the dangers of plasma cutting? here are a few dangers: electrical risks, damage of your eyes and the danger of breathing in metal dust and other debris kicked up from the interaction between the plasma and the metal on which you’re working.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at how plasma cutters work, what the dangers of using them are, what medical consequences can arise from that, and how you can protect yourself.
Table of Contents
How Plasma Cutters Work
Before we get into how plasma cutters work, let’s take a step back and briefly touch on what plasma is and why it’s so dangerous in the first place.
Plasma is the fourth state of matter besides solids, liquids, and gas. Unlike those other three states of matter, it isn’t something that we deal with every day, but that’s part of what makes it so dangerous. Plasma is formed when gas is superheated to such a degree that it changes into plasma.
This is how plasma cutters work. They pressurize a gas such as argon, oxygen, or nitrogen by firing it through a small nozzle. The sheer pressure involved, combined with negatively charged electrodes, creates a spark that helps to superheat the gas to temperatures of up to 45,000 Fahrenheit.
On the one hand, given how hot it is and how much of a superior cutting tool plasma is compared to gas, this can be an extremely effective way to cut through tough materials and perform intricate cuts.
On the other hand, that same superheated state and the effects it can produce in your work environment, especially when combined with the metal, can pose a great risk to workers.
Related reading: What Is a Plasma Cutter and How Does It Work?
The first and most obvious risk of working with plasma cutters is the sheer heat. Needless to say, something that can rival the surface of the sun in terms of raw heat isn’t something in which you want to expose yourself to, directly or otherwise.
Related reading: How Hot Does a Plasma Cutter Actually Get? Real Facts -2020
As with anything that uses electricity carries electrical risks, and that’s certainly the case here. Given the high voltages involved, plasma cutter wires can electrocute you if you aren’t mindful about the integrity of the electrical components.
The bright flash unleashed by plasma welding can also damage your eyes. Arc eye, also known as welder’s eye, is just what it sounds like, vision problems and general ocular discomfort caused by the brightness involved in welding.
Finally, given how much heat they generate, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that plasma cutters carry a fire hazard. All it takes is one spark igniting the gas or plasma at an inopportune moment to unleash a wall of fire with disastrous consequences. Thankfully, the risk is, for the most part, highly manageable so long as you follow instructions and make sure your equipment is in good condition.
Dangerous Side Effects
In addition to the more immediate physical dangers that come with using plasma cutters, there are also a wide range of side effects to consider.
First and foremost, you need to consider the danger of breathing in metal dust and other debris kicked up from the interaction between the plasma and the metal on which you’re working. This is one of the most problematic side effects of using a plasma cutter, and yet it’s also one you aren’t likely to suspect unless you have foreknowledge and experience of the phenomenon from work. The danger of breathing in metallic dust is especially prevalent for metals that coat the surface. This is especially true of hexavalent chromium, which is intended to prevent corrosion, but can lead to major problems for your respiratory system if you inhale it.
In the worst case scenario, inhaling hexavalent chromium can cause cancer as well as other diseases. Other forms of exposure can also lead to skin and eye irritation as well as other potential medical problems.
Unfortunately, avoiding these conditions is not as easy as simply avoiding hexavalent chromium. There is a similar risk to inhaling metallic debris or contaminants from other metals, such as:
All of these materials can cause a great deal of irritation to your eyes as well as your nose and throat. In the worst cases, they can even damage your kidneys and lungs, cause brain or nerve damage, and cause other forms of cancer. This is due in part to the fact that your lungs are incredibly sensitive, so even the tiniest metal particles or bits of debris, once inhaled, can rip through or embed themselves deeply into your tissue, causing massive pain and breathing problems.
In addition, with metals such as copper, nickel, and zinc, you may be susceptible to metal fume fever. This condition is just what it sounds like, fever-like symptoms triggered by breathing in the fumes created by heating and kicking up debris from these metals, the chemicals to which they have been exposed, and metal-chemical combinations with similar properties. This condition can mimic the flu, with everything from coughing and headaches to fever and muscle aches. While it is more commonly associated with welding, it can also be applicable to plasma cutting.
In short, prolonged direct exposure to these metals, as well as the chemical coatings with which they have been treated under plasma cutting conditions, is the last thing you want.
How to Protect and Treat Yourself
Needless to say, you don’t want any of these problems to happen to you, so find ways to protect yourself against and, if necessary, treat yourself for plasma cutter-induced injuries and conditions.
Below are some of the most important steps you can take to protect yourself from the various dangers of plasma cutting.
1. Wear and Use the Proper Equipment
First and foremost, you want to make sure that you are using quality equipment. The last thing you want is for one of the situations mentioned above to arise simply because you were using equipment that was old, outdated, or faulty. For that reason, if you have even the slightest suspicion that the wires are frayed, the gas regulator isn’t up to snuff, the nozzle is cracked, or any other element of your plasma cutter system is in any way damaged, replace it immediately.
In addition, you’ll want to make sure you are wearing the proper safety equipment. This means making sure that your entire body is covered in protective gear that can withstand the heat involved. You should have thick clothes that allow a free range of movement while still wearing gloves and an apron which are approved for welding and plasma cutting. Your eyes should remain protected at all times by a welding mask with darkened visors.
If you follow some of the other tips mentioned below that are designed to cut down on air pollution, you may not need to wear a respirator while welding. That said, given the importance of protecting your respiratory system at all costs, you may feel more comfortable doing so.
2. Follow OSHA Guidelines
OSHA has set down guidelines for making sure that workers are able to go about their jobs in the certainty that they are safe. This is especially important when it comes to working with something as potentially dangerous as a plasma cutter.
First and foremost, you need to determine whether you can install a means of keeping the air in the area clean and chemical-free. This is the best way of avoiding the kind of conditions that can result in you accidentally breathing in metal fumes and suffering the consequences. For example, you should ideally refrain from using chemicals or any toxic materials in enclosed spaces where the fumes cannot be ventilated out.
If this cannot be accomplished, you’ll need to make sure that you have a respirator. Of course, simply giving someone a respirator won’t automatically protect them anymore than giving someone a plasma cutter suddenly makes them an expert at welding. It is, thus, essential that those wearing respirators are trained to know how they work. There are typically mandatory training programs that are put in place to make sure that employees understand how to use their respirators properly.
According to OSHA guidelines, these training programs must be put into writing and be specific to the place of work, meaning that you cannot just use a generalized training program or get by with a verbal “promise” that someone has “practiced.” They must be formally trained and legally cleared.
3. The Milk Trick
Hopefully, you never have to see whether or not there is any truth to this makeshift cure. Certainly you shouldn’t bet your skin or eyes on it. Nevertheless, some people have reported splashing milk on their eyes to be a good stopgap measure for addressing the immediate pain of welder’s flash. Naturally, this isn’t a substitute for proper eye protection or seeing your doctor, but if you’re in agonizing pain and need immediate relief, it may be able to at least ease your suffering until you can see a medical professional. Likewise, some have reported that drinking milk before plasma cutting can help reduce the chances inhaled fumes will cause problems – but, of course, it would be best to simply not breathe in those fumes in the first place.
Related reading: What is Arc Eye and What are the Symptoms?
4. Have Good Grounding
To avoid the electrical problems, you’ll want to make sure that you have good grounding. This is an essential part of safeguarding any system that makes use of electrical components, and it is especially important when used for something as powerful and – if the grounding isn’t sufficient – potentially hazardous as your plasma cutter. You should also make sure that there is no water located anywhere near the area in which you are working.
5. Check Your Gas Regulators
Given how important the aforementioned gasses are to producing the plasma you are using, you’ll need to make sure that the machines regulating their pressurization, temperature, and other factors are kept in good condition. Make sure that any and all cylindrical containers are secured in place, stationary, upright, and are constantly supported by external means. When transporting these cylinders, you should make sure that the protector cap located at the top is securely in place.
As with all of the other systems, if you have even the slightest suspicion that there is something wrong with your regulator, stop cutting immediately and have it inspected. Unless you are certified for repairs, do not attempt to do so yourself. Each regulator must be repaired in accordance with the manufacturer’s and machine’s specific instructions. This can usually be accomplished at official repair centers.
Make sure that any clamps you are using to keep everything in place are in good order.
Always make sure that the hose for the unit is kept clear of the ground. The last thing you want is to accidentally step on or roll over the hose with the wheels of a cart.
Never splice hoses thinking you can repair them that way. Instead, as with everything else about these machines, damaged hoses should be replaced at an appropriate center.
Many aspects of plasma cutter operation is undeniably dangerous. That said, this is the case with many professions. The most important thing is to make sure that you understand the risks as well as how to use these machines responsibly. Ensure that you know what to do in case of emergency, and how to avoid them in the first place.
By following these basic tips, you can steer clear of the dangerous side of things and embrace the power and potential of plasma cutting.