Doctors in Australia say an unusual welding accident left a 60-year-old man with steel lodged in his right ear. In a new case study, they detail how the metal punctured the man’s eardrum, causing him to lose some hearing and develop tinnitus. Luckily, he avoided more serious injury and his hearing was restored after the metal was surgically removed.
The man’s bizarre case was described by doctors in the journal BMJ Case Reports this week. According to the report, the man had been working on welding the underside of his semi-trailer (the back half of a tractor-trailer). He was lying on his left side right underneath the welding, without any ear protection, when a “spark of molten hot steel came off from the welding site and fell directly into” his right ear canal. The man immediately felt intense burning pain in the ear, along with loud “fire cracker”-like sounds and a loss of hearing. To help alleviate the pain, he poured cold tap water down the right ear, which seemed to help.
By the time he visited an emergency room later that day, he had also started to develop a weird sense of taste. Further examination revealed that the metal singed some hairs in the right ear and had perforated through some of his tympanic membrane, or eardrum. But otherwise, he seemed to escape the accident relatively unscathed. The man was given painkillers (and later antibiotics for two mild ear infections) and then referred to an ear, nose, and throat specialist eight weeks later.
At his later visit, doctors confirmed that the metal remained stuck inside his right ear and that he was still experiencing some amount of hearing loss as well as tinnitus, most often triggered by the cold. The decision was then made to surgically remove the metal (which also allowed the doctors to take a very gnarly image of the offending foreign body, for those brave enough to look). The surgery went off without a hitch and a follow-up exam two weeks later found that his eardrum had healed and that his hearing had returned to normal.
Welding injuries are common, but getting molten steel in your ear seems to be a fairly rare occurrence. The authors of the report only managed to find four other documented cases in the medical literature. In those cases, though, victims generally experienced more serious complications, such as facial paralysis due to damaged nerves, vertigo, and pus-filled discharge from infection, not to mention permanent ear damage and hearing loss.
Their patient, on the other hand, was “an exceedingly lucky man who suffered only mild conductive hearing loss from his injury and had a positive outcome from surgical intervention with full recovery of his hearing and removal of the offending foreign body.”
Rare as this kind of accident might be, it’s still a danger that anyone who welds should take precautions against. Understandably, the doctors call for welders to be more aware of the risk and to wear earplugs when welding.