by Jason Becker
We have all heard the rumors surrounding welding. It’s dark, dirty, and dangerous. That may have been the case 20 years ago but the welding industry as a whole has come a long way since its inception.
I have been in welding shops that are cleaner than some of the kitchens in high end restaurants, illuminated better than most hospitals and safer than most office spaces. The welding industry is not what it once was. The new welder can be just as safe as the average bank manager. It’s all about being educated, trained and using the correct PPE. During my time as a welding educator we have had ZERO loss time incidents in any of my classes. And we worked in some tight spaces with a lot of bodies. At one point (against my recommendation) I had 25 students in a 30ft x 40’ lab with torches burning, saws cutting, ironworkers sheering, grinders grinding and welding machines welding.
How? How did we avoid injury in such a tight space with that many bodies and that much equipment running at the same time? It's simple. Prior to entering the lab, the students were trained with the basics of welding safety. After the first few days of welding safety we covered practical applications of safety. Once the students understood safety and how to identify and eliminate potential hazards, we moved on to proper care, inspection and use of power tools. Then to other shop equipment. The students would police each other and help to mitigate accidents through proper training. Each student was a safety officer. Sure, we had a couple incidents that required a small band aid but nothing more than that.
Dressing for the Job you Want, Not the Job you Have
Before we talk about welding safety we have to dress the part. When determining how to dress properly I star from the ground up. I recommend Steel Toe work boots to all my students. 8” boots are higher were required in order for the students to participate. Safety shoes were not acceptable. They may have had a steel toe, but most contained synthetic fibers in them. Leather only. Moving up, you should be wearing denim, wool or other natural fiber pants. Synthetic fibers are flammable and don’t take much to ignite them. A stray spark can cause an injury pretty fast. Additionally, the pant legs should go over the boots. Anyone who has ever welded with their pant legs in their boots has only done it once I assure you. A spark on the inside of the boot will humble you really quick. The same applies to the shirt. Natural fibers only and 4” sleeves are required. Longer shirts should be tucked in to the waistline of the pants. Next up, safety glasses. These are required to be on your face before you walk into the lab and do not come off until you exit the lab.
Welding Specific Safety
Now that we are dressing the part, it’s time to start acting like it. Everyone in the welding industry should read the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Z49.1, Safety in Welding, Cutting, and Allied Processes. It’s a short read at only 70 pages but it covers everything you need to know to keep yourself and your fellow co-workers safe and out of harms way. My students were required to read this book the first week of class and we would discuss certain sections each day. After all, safety is the first priority of each task.
Some of the most common hazards related to welding are:
Ultra Violet Rays
Gas and Fume Exposure
By wearing the appropriate Proper Protective Equipment (PPE) for the task at hand, we can mitigate any injuries resulting from the welding process.
Eye, face, and head protection
For this section we will identify PPE in general since discussing PPE for each task would be a much more in-depth discussion.
As previously mentioned show up dressed appropriately for hot work. Additionally, we should mention the use of a good welding jacket. The UV rays generated from the arc welding process are approximately 10 times brighter than the sun. So, a cotton t-shirt is obviously not enough protection. I know, I know they make welding sleeves to keep your arms covered. But a t-shirt just doesn’t provide enough protection for the user to perform welding safely. Not to mention all the sparks, molten metal, hot slag etc. Put on a decent welding jacket. It doesn’t have to be big, bulky and made of solid leather. Get something heavy enough to perform the welding safely. I also recommend a welding jacket for cutting and grinding. The materials that welding jackets are made of are less likely to get caught up in a grinder than a t-shirt. But if it does, there’s enough fabric to prevent the grinder from continuing on its intended path if it does get caught up. Additionally, it provides an additional layer of protection from sparks while grinding, wires that go astray from a wire wheel etc. Protect your body. Spend a couple extra bucks and get something that’s quality and will hold up for a while.
Anticipate that everything we handle as a welder is either sharp, hot or heavy. You work with your hands all day, keep them covered to avoid injuries. Selecting the appropriate glove for the task at hand should be relatively easy. Pick a glove that will provide the protection you need and won’t hinder you while you are working. For instance, you wouldn’t wear a pair of heavy, thick stick welding gloves to operate a small angle grinder, would you? Of coarse not. Likewise, you wouldn’t wear a pair of gloves designed for material handling to stick weld with. Pick a glove with solid protection and good dexterity. Now one thing that most don’t consider, especially those new to the industry is to take off any jewelry. Although that badass bracelet you made from scrap TIG wire looks cool and that wedding band is very sentimental, it’s also a great conductor of electricity and heat. Take them off and leave them in your lunchbox or better yet at the house. If a piece of molten metal hits that snazzy piece of jewelry it will transfer that heat very rapidly to your bare skin. The same applies to coming in contact with electricity. You don’t want to be on the receiving end of an electrical shock if your jewelry hits an open circuit. Rings can also get caught in tools so its best just not to wear them on the job.
We addressed this earlier but its worth mentioning again. Get some good quality leather boots. Although they are not required by most codes, I recommend steel toes. I have had a few close calls in my day due to carelessness whether it was my fault or someone else’s. The steel toes have done their job each time I’ve needed them. Leather is a must for obvious reasons, we deal with a lot of open flames, sparks and molten metal and leather is the superior choice to keep these hazards off of our feet.
Huh? Ear protection. What? EAR PROTECTION Say again, I said EAR PROTECTION. This is probably one of the most readily available yet underutilized pieces of PPE we have at our disposal. Wear your earplugs, not headphones, not ear buds etc. earplugs. Prolonged exposure to grinders, saws, drills, air tools etc. can cause tinnitus. You do not want that. In addition, having something to cover your earholes will also keep out unwanted sparks and other debris. I can tell you first hand, a hot spark in the ear canal is a new kind of hurt. Keep them plugs in and use them regularly.
Eye, Face and Head Protection
Eye protection should be obvious, get a good pair that are comfortable and that meet the minimum Z87.1 requirement, that’s really all you need. Wear them during your entire shift. I’ve heard every excuse as to why someone won’t wear their safety glasses.
They’re not comfortable. =>Buy a pair that is comfortable. Most places your able to try them on before
They keep fogging up. => They’ll do that from time to time, get some anti fog lenses or clean
them with an anti-fog spray.
They’re all scratched up. => If you keep them on your face, they wont get scratched up. You know
you have to wear them again tomorrow, put them in a case before
you throw them in the toolbox.
Let us not forget about the face shield either. Anytime you are using a grinder or other rotary type of power tool. Put on a face shield. Yes, even though you have your glasses on you still need a face shield. Those glasses won’t prevent your moneymaker from getting split open if a grinding wheel fails and your lips and teeth are in its travel plans. Likewise, metal turnings from a drill are hot and stick to skin very well when they come off of the material you’re working on. Use a face shield often. Wear a tinted face shield when cutting with a torch or a plasma cutter. You're obviously not a face model because you're welding for a living. Let’s try to not to do any more damage to that mug of yours shall we? Sparks and molten metal are common with any thermal cutting process. Select the appropriate IR rated lens for your face shield based on the cutting process you are using. Refer back to the Z49.1 for lens shade recommendations for thermal cutting applications. Most quality welding hoods these days offer an array of shade selections from IR 5-14 that are built right into the hood. A welding hood is a safe alternative to a face shield if you prefer to go that route. Just make sure its auto dark and has the shade you need for the job you’re doing. While we're talking about hoods, we need to ensure we have the appropriate shade lens for the amperage we're working with. We’ve all heard stories about so and so’s dad or grandpa who was a welder for 20 years and damn near went blind because of it. Well, I have been welding for over 20 years now and still have 20/20 uncorrected vision. That’s because I use the recommended welding lens for the amount of amperage I’m using. So how do we know what shade to use? Funny you should ask. Remember that ANSI Z49.1 document that I referred to earlier? Keeps popping up doesn’t it? Well, that information is in there as well. There’s a handy little table in there that will tell you the recommended shade as well as the minimum shade you should use. That will keep your eyesight in tact if you follow their recommendations. I usually start off with the higher recommendation and see how that works and adjust from there as needed, but never go below the minimum recommendation.
Now, let’s not forget to keep that grape covered. Some shops and most all outdoor construction are going to require you to wear a hard hat. I like the Skull Guards from MSA. They’re a little bit pricey compared to the white plastic ones at the home improvement store but they are worth the extra money. They fit better, are more comfortable, and their compositions seems a bit more solid than their plastic counterparts. While you’re at it, get a quality halo that fits your style of hood and your type of hardhat. There’s nothing more aggravating than having a crappy halo that won’t fit your hardhat or its not compatible with your hood. Buy quality and buy once.
Work Area Safety
It’s always a good idea to check your work surroundings before you begin any hot work. Sparks from welding and cutting operations can travel up to 25ft from where you are working. The last thing you want happening when you flip your hood down is to start a fire that you can’t see while you're welding. Check the area and make sure it’s clear of any flammable materials such as oily rags, petroleum products, cardboard, wood, paper etc. Make sure that once it’s safe that you continually monitor the area to make sure people aren’t bringing potential fire hazards into your work area. A fire watch is a great resource to have onsite. They can keep watch while you focus on the task at hand.
This will be a short segment. If you are not trained to work in confined spaces, DON’T enter one to do any work. Get some good training and get qualified before attempting this. There are too many things that can go wrong while performing confined space work.
There are 2 sources of electrical hazards to consider within welding. Primary hazards come from the source voltage that powers the welding machine. This voltage can be between 230V-480V and can cause serious injury or death if you come into contact with them. Anytime you are working on the internal components of the machine, you should unplug the welder.
Secondary hazards exist in the welding process itself. This type of shock can occur if a person touches part of the electrical circuit such as a bare spot in the welding cable. Anytime you will be welding, you must keep yourself insulated. Wear dry gloves that are in good condition, keep dry insulation between you and the electrical current. Keep welding cables in good repair
Fumes and Gases
The gases, fumes and dust produced by welding and cutting processes can be hazardous. Adequate ventilation must be provided to prevent workers from breathing these products. There are three methods available to protect personnel against fumes and gasses.
Natural ventilation-The movement through of air through the workplace caused by natural forces is often enough to remove fumes and gases.
Mechanical ventilation-If natural ventilation is not adequate, portable or fixed fans can be used to provide the necessary ventilation.
Source extraction-This method uses a mechanical device to capture welding fumes at or near the arc
With Natural ventilation, ensure to stand upwind from the fumes. Always keep your head out of the fume plume.
With mechanical ventilation, ensure the fan is blowing away from your face, the wind coming from the fan can cause dust, debris, fume, and gases to blow into your eyes and face.
With source Extraction, keep the hood 6-15 inches away from your welding arc. These systems can extract between 560-860 cubic feet of air per hour.
Special metals require the use of a respirator to protect the welder from harmful fumes. Respirators are grouped into three main types based on how they protect the wearer from contaminants. NOTE: You should receive proper training before wearing a respirator as they can cause strain on the user’s cardiovascular system. You should also have a fit test done to ensure the equipment selected will from a proper seal on your face. If outside air is getting in, you are not protected. A spirometry test will ensure that you are in good enough health to wear a respirator with out issue.
Supplied–air respirator (SARs)
Self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA)
Some metals require the use of a respirator when heating, grinding or welding on them.
Cadmium (found in some steel and fasteners)
Hexavalent Chromium (found in stainless steels)
Base metal coatings such as paint
Zinc (found in Galvanized metals)
All of these materials are potentially hazardous if inhaled. Be sure to safe guard yourself by using adequate ventilation, a respirator or both.
Okay, so that is a lot of information to digest. That is why I recommend reading the ANSI Z49.1 document to ensure you are working safe. Welding doesn’t have to be a hazardous occupation. You just have to be safety minded while you are performing the work. With proper training and some common sense, you will do just fine. I have been in this industry for 20+ years now and aside from a few nicks and small cuts I’ve been unscathed. They biggest thing to working safely is to assess the work area, look for potential hazards and eliminate or isolate them from the work area. Pay attention to those around you. You are more likely to get hurt by someone else than you are yourself. Use the appropriate PPE for the task at hand and don’t get complacent. They told us in the Marine Corps that Complacency Kills and I am a firm believer in those words. I have seen many an injury take place with the thought process of “this will only take a second” preceding the event. Stay safe out there and until next time Make Every Weld Better Than Your Last.