Welding screens: when to use them and what to look for

When hotwork operations like welding aren’t properly screened, employees are put at risk of a painful condition called arc eye. Fire and Safety Centre explains how welding screens provide protection, where and when they should be used, the standard they’re made to and how to buy them.

It takes only a fraction of a second for a brilliant flash of ultra-violet light to inflict a painful condition that can severely blur your vision for days, even in mild cases. It’s called photokeratitis, though its more familiar name is arc eye, derived from its most common cause – welding.

But it’s not suffered only by welders without proper eye protection. Anyone close to welding operations is vulnerable to it, since it’s a natural reaction to turn towards a sudden flash of light, such as a welding arc being struck.

The condition is a burn to the eye’s cornea, which, if it’s severe, will need professional medical treatment. Milder cases are helped by flushing the eyes with water and using over-the-counter eye drops – but all of this can be prevented by using welding screens and curtains.


How welding screens protect against arc eye

Prevention of the condition is straightforward, and involves the use of welding screens, which also protect against the other great danger caused by welding; the risk of fire from stray sparks. Welding screens, also known as welding curtains, welding blankets or welding drapes, provide a robust barrier against both sparks and that intense UV burst that causes arc eye.

However, the term ‘welding screens’ is perhaps a misnomer, since they perform that vital spark-controlling function during other types of hotwork too, such as burning, grinding and brazing.

Wherever they’re used, the employee’s whole work area needs to have welding curtains around it. But even that’s not enough if it’s welding; industrial locations commonly have high-level walkways from which others are able to look down on the operations below, and up there they’re just as vulnerable to arc eye, so a welding screen above the work area is equally important.


Which British Standard covers welding curtains?

Welding screens and curtains, no matter what they’re made of, should conform to British Standard EN 1598:1998, or offer the same level of protection required by the standard. The standard makes no reference to what colour the screen should be, since that has no bearing on its performance. However, a degree of translucency is often desirable, since that will allow enough light to be visible to let passers-by know that someone actually is working inside. That makes flame retardant reinforced red PVC an ideal welding screen material.

The areas in which hotwork can take place make portable welding screens desirable. These come in two kinds; as pieces of fabric which can by tied up in situ, or, if the screens don’t need to be moved far, welding screens on wheels –though these are clearly less than ideal for moving on a truck or in a van.

Whichever is used, they need to be arranged in such a way so there is no tripping hazard, and they’re not blocking walkways or interfering with other operations such as forklift or crane movements, unless all the correct isolation procedures have been carried out.


Points to consider before buying welding screens or welding drapes

• Size: we offer them in a range of sizes up to 3.6m square to suit the work area,

• Colour: not a consideration; colour doesn’t affect performance
• Standard: Look for BS 1598:1998
• Quality: You need resistance to abrasion, tearing and weld spatter.
• Temperature: Different types of welding drape resist different temperatures

Other places you’re at risk from arc eye:

• Tanning salons
• Ski slopes
• Bright desk lights
• Close to water in bright sunlight