Plasma Cutter Safety

So, you’ve been welding for years and you just bought a plasma cutter. You’re ready to get out to your work shop and start cutting away, using the same safety procedures as you do when you weld. Hold your horses, cowboy! Plasma cutting is a little different than welding and the safety guidelines are different too.

There are different sizes of plasma cutters and the following list of safety tips and general information is for compressed air cutters, but the same ideas will hold true for larger plasma cutting equipment.

  • Plasma cutters create an electric circuit between the metal that you are cutting and the plasma cutting equipment. This means that anything touching the metal is part of the circuit, including you, if you accidentally touch it. Electric shocks are not much fun, so be careful what you touch!
  • The output voltages for plasma cutters are 100 to 200 volts (much higher than regular welders).
  • Make sure that you never touch the body of the plasma cutting torch, the metal that you’re working on, or the water in the water table (if that is the setup your working with)
  • When you are cutting, that is ALL you are doing. Do not pick up the piece your working on and do not pick up the cutoff metal.
  • Do not adjust the clamp while you are cutting
  • Make sure that you wear insulated boots and gloves and that your clothing and your body are dry
  • While cutting, avoid wet surfaces like the plague. Do not stand, sit, touch, or lay down in any liquids
  • While plasma cutting always make efforts to insulate yourself from ground and from your work piece. Using insulated mats and covers big enough to keep you physically separate from the metal. If you must work in a damp area (for example, if you are fixing heavy machinery onsite) use extreme caution.
  • Ensure that the metal of the work cable is in contact with the metal of the work table or the metal that you’re working on
  • Make sure that where the work cable is clamped is free of dirt, dust, paint, rust, water, etc. The surface must be as clean as possible.
  • Make sure the work cable is attached to the main body of the work piece and not clamped to the piece that is being cut off.

The arc that is created when the plasma cutter is in operation is also very dangerous. First of all, and most obvious, the arc is insanely hot, so make sure it doesn’t make contact with any part of you. Second, the arc produces intense light in the visible and invisible spectrums (infrared and ultraviolet) which can burn your eyes and skin. For that reason you will want to wear a face shield with a number 5 or 6 shade protection as well as other types of protective clothing.

Protective Clothing

  • Safety shoes, hat and gauntlet gloves
  • Fame-retardant clothing
  • Cuffless pants so that no sparks or slag go where the shouldn’t be (ie/ into your pants!)
  • Before you start cutting remove anything that can combust from your person (matches, butane lighters, that tank of oxyacetylene you carry around everywhere you go).

Plasma cutting can be very loud (more than 120dB. Just an FYI, a jet engine screams at about 140-160dB when it’s taking off.), so make sure that you take the necessary precautions.

  • Ear protection in the form of ear plugs or noise-cancelling earmuffs, or both at the same time

Although plasma cutting uses air, water and inert gas mixtures, toxic fumes are still created (from the slag mostly). These fumes may cause serious injury through oxygen depletion, inhalation causing light-headedness, etc. The point, make sure that:

  • your work area is well-ventilated and/or wear an approved air-supplied respirator.
  • you are far away from cleaning, degreasing, and spraying operations. The UV light from the plasma cutting arc can break down certain chlorinated solvents to create toxic phosgene gas.

If you have a pacemaker or a hearing aid you may want to have second thoughts about working with a plasma cutter. The magnetic fields created from the large electrical currents can affect hearing aid and pacemaker operation. Consult your physician before going near plasma cutting projects.

If you take the right precautions, plasma cutting is very safe. Pay attention to all safety instructions and set the operation up properly. Understand how plasma cutting works (the closed electrical circuit) and use that knowledge combined with common sense and standard safety guidelines and you should be alright.