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by Mary Scianna

Reducing welder safety hazards

Welding processes pose risks to workers if the proper precautions and safety steps are not implemented properly.

Indeed, most industry suppliers advise that safety be the first priority in setting up a welding shop or training a new welder. While most experienced welders recognize the hazards of the job, there are times when even the most experienced welder sometimes doesn’t make safety a priority. And that, as we all know, can pose a high health risk to a welder.

Shop Metalworking Technology asked welding equipment suppliers about top safety considerations in welding. Here are the top seven factors to consider.

1. Understand your welding equipment
Improper use of your welding equipment will not only result in welding failures, it can cause physical harm to the welder and damage the equipment. Suppliers suggest welders familiarize themselves with their welding equipment and ensure instruction manuals are easily accessible, especially if newly trained welders are on the job. 

“Understanding your welding equipment and the way it operates is an important first step in the process of using your equipment as safely as possible. If you don’t understand all of the functionality of your equipment, you will not be able to protect yourself and others from injury,” says David A. Werba, manager for product design compliance and senior electrical engineer for Miller Electric Mfg. Co., Appleton, WI.

2. Maintain your welding equipment
According to the Alberta Construction Safety Association, workers in pipe welding are responsible for checking their equipment at frequent and regular intervals for defects, such as defective cables in wet areas. Equipment suppliers suggest regular maintenance can prevent equipment failure and welder injuries.

“You must repair or replace damaged parts at once. An example of the hazards that can be encountered due to improperly maintained equipment is the use of worn, damaged, undersized, or poorly spliced cables. This use creates electric shock, sparks and fire hazards,” advises Werba from Miller.

3. Fumes and gases
Welding fumes and gases pose a health risk if welders breathe them in. The most obvious safety precaution is to keep your head out of the fumes. Most of the shielding gases used in arc welding, for example, are non-toxic, but they can displace oxygen in breathing air, which can cause a welder to become dizzy, unconscious, and even lead to death. You need to ensure you have enough ventilation and sometimes this may require taking samples of the breathing air to find out how much ventilation is needed and what type of respiratory protection is required.

4. Electric shocks
Welders who have been at the job for a long time may not think about it, but everyone should remember “you’re playing with electricity and especially for people who are new to welding, they have to be aware that improper use of equipment can lead to electric shock,” advises David Genske, Jr., a pipe welding technologist with Lincoln Electric Co., Cleveland, OH. One simple safety rule for portable and vehicle mounted welding generators often used in the field for pipeline welding is to ensure the generators are properly grounded.

Your first line of defense is “to avoid touching live electrical parts‚” adds Werba from Miller. “The electrode and work circuit while welding is electrically live whenever the output is on. The input power circuit and machine internal circuits are also live when power is on.” Wearing appropriate personal protection equipment and clothing is the best defense.

5. Fire and explosions
Compressed gases and flames in many welding processes pose a risk of explosion and fire. Welders should always remember to limit the amount of oxygen in the air and keep combustible materials away for the workplace.

“Another common mistake I see in the welding workplace is the placement of the connection of the work cable,” says Werba of Miller. “You must connect the work cable to the work as close to the welding area as practical to prevent welding current from travelling long, possibly unknown paths, and causing electric shock, sparks and fire harzards.”

6. Personal protection
Since many common welding procedures involve an open electric arc or flame, there is a risk of burns to the welder. Using approved helmets, hand shields, safety goggles or glasses, insulating gloves, flame-resistant ear plugs or muffs, oil-free protective garments and fire resistance boots, are the best ways to prevent burns. 

There’s been a trend towards the use of auto darkening helmets in pipe fabrication, says Indy Datta, brand management for Victor Technologies, St. Louis, MO. “Welders know that helmets from reputable manufacturers can switch from light-to-dark at the strike of an arc in as little as 33 microseconds, or 1/30,000th of a second. By way of comparison, a human eye blink takes 3/10th to 4/10th of a second.”

7. Be aware of your surroundings
Different welding environments such as confined spaces (e.g. tanks and vessels) or outside spaces (e.g. pipelines) pose different risks. In pipeline welding for instance, Lincoln Electric’s David Genske Jr. says “pipes can flop. What happens is workers dig a trench however miles long and welders come and start welding. At a certain distance they’ll have side booms to move the pipe, and there may be a string of them. Sometimes when they start to lower the pipe into the trench, the pipe falls and can flop onto welders. This is many tons of pipe and if they fall, they can kill someone.” SMT

Information based on discussions and data supplied by ESAB, Lincoln Electric, Miller Electric Mfg. Co. and Victor Technologies.

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