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When it comes to protecting your face, eyes, and respiratory system, welding helmets are an integral part of a safety gear system. Welding exposes your face to flying sparks and infrared radiation and your nose, throat, and lungs to metal fumes, all of which can vary in intensity depending on what you’re welding. Combined with the hazards of your worksite at large, a helmet is a must for reducing your exposure to hazards. While a combination of a helmet or welding hood, shield, glasses, or respirator can protect against many industrial hazards, a high-quality welding helmet with auto-darkening shade features will do the most to protect your face and vision and adjust to worksite conditions, often for years with proper care.
The best welding helmet is one that conforms to your industry’s standards (ANSI Z87.1:2020, which helps eliminate eye and face hazards, is a good one to look out for in general, but your industry might have additional requirements for safety gear). Welding helmets should protect all of your head and face, and some can provide supplied air or have respirators incorporated into the design to protect against fumes and other respiratory hazards.
For a time, passive helmets were the standard, and they might still be sufficient for your industry. They’re harder to use in some spaces, don’t have adjustable shades, and require frequent lifting and repeated neck movements, but they offer solid protection at a lower price than some more advanced options.
Auto-darkening helmets are a popular and more advanced option for a lot of very good reasons. The auto-darkening welding helmet lens, when exposed to harmful UV lights created during welding, will instantly darken to protect the wearer’s eyes. These helmets feature ways to adjust different settings to further calibrate the helmet for your line of work, which is helpful because different types of welding cause different intensities of lights and flashes. This also, in some cases, negates the need to constantly flip up the lens to check your work. Because of the greater number of features, auto-darkening helmets are going to be pricier than passive welding helmets, but for a lot of jobs, it might be worth the investment.
As with buying any other safety helmet, make sure that the welding helmet you’re choosing is comfortable. It shouldn't be heavy enough to cause neck strain, should fit comfortably on your head, and balance when the cover is in both the up and down position.
Always consult the manufacturer guidelines for adjusting the control settings on your helmet, as those will be more reliable than general advice. Auto-darkening helmets typically don’t incorporate an on/off switch into the design because they have an auto-darkening filter, or ADF. This filter will start functioning immediately after detecting light, usually from the welding torch that you’re using. This filter will also shut off once the light source is off for a certain length of time. This is often adjustable, usually in a range around 0.1 to 1 second.
High-quality auto-darkening welding helmets have knobs or switches to help control the light sensitivity (the intensity of light required to activate the ADF), response time or delay (the speed that the ADF will activate once the sensors detect a light source), and shade (the darkness of the lens once the light source activates), giving the wearer the ability to adjust the helmet to their specific needs. Some high-quality models will have the ability to remember your custom controls so that you can activate them the next time you’re at work. Passive welding helmets can’t be adjusted and require the wearer to use additional shades to provide more protection.
After you’ve set your controls, make sure that you test your helmet! You don’t want to get a feel for your protection while you’re on the job. Make sure that it’s comfortable, fits properly, and suits your needs before you have to use it in context.
The ideal shade for most welding processes is between 9 and 13, with 10 being a very common one. The numbers of the welding shades tell you how dark the glass is in the lens, with higher numbers being darker, but don’t actually describe the level of protection that the lens offers. The darkness is more about comfort than protection from UV radiation: it’s the difference between working on a weld in very bright industrial conditions versus needing clearer vision in dark ones.
Most auto-darkening welding helmets will fall within the 9 to 13 range and are adjustable within it to accommodate different or changing work conditions. Typically, passive helmets will come in shade number 10 and require the use of other shade lenses to make them darker. Different models and manufacturers might put the shade and other information in different places, but adjustment controls can be placed on the inner or outer part of the helmet (usually inner so that they stay protected). Some newer helmets incorporate LED technology and colored screens to display the control indications, which can make it easier to see what shade your helmet is as well as adjust it to the right level. If all else fails, check the user manual for your helmet or the manufacturer’s guidelines to make sure you’re using and setting your helmet correctly.
OSHA has guidelines for choosing welding lens shades for different industries. You can check their website for more specific information related to your industry, but it ranges from torch blazing at a 3 or 4 to plasma arc cutting requiring shade numbers 8 through 14. If you’re unsure, it’s of course better to err on the side of too dark.