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Welding is a fabrication process whereby two or more parts are fused together by means of heat, pressure or both, forming a join as the parts cool. Welding is usually used on metals and thermoplastics. Welding processes are commonly used across a range of industries including engineering, aerospace, automotive, vehicle maintenance, shipbuilding and ship repair, energy, and construction, amongst others. The main employers of welders are small and medium-sized firms, although there are some large employers in the engineering industry.
Welding is a highly skilled and extremely high-risk activity. There are estimated to be between 40,000 and 80,000 welders employed in the UK, including those working in jobs where welding is only part of the function. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that breathing metal fume at work leads to 40–50 welders each year being hospitalised, so they need to maintain their own safety, as well as the safety of the area and the people around them. It is important that they know what safety issues to be aware of and how to observe and promote safety at work.
What is the role of a welder?
Welders work in a wide range of industries and environments and can be found wherever they are needed to fabricate and join metal parts. Most welders work with steel and aluminium, but some welders also work as braziers with copper or brass; these materials do not melt. Three main processes of welding may be used, although there are many others, namely manual, semi-automatic and fully mechanised.
Manual welding consists of:
- Manual metal arc (MMA) welding – hand welding using electric arc equipment and welding consumable electrodes.
- Oxyacetylene welding – basic hand welding using a mixture of oxygen and acetylene with a separate wire, mainly used for artistic or craft work.
- Tungsten inert gas (TIG) welding – a manual process using argon or helium, a non-consumable electrode and consumable wire.
Welders using manual techniques often work alone. They must be able to quickly adjust the welding technique in order to correct errors. The quality of a weld depends on the welder’s level of skill and is subject to careful quality control.
Semi-automatic welding includes:
- Metal inert gas (MIG) welding – a semi-automatic process using argon and/or helium, sometimes referred to as metal active gas (MAG) welding when carbon dioxide is used in the shielding gas mixture.
Fully mechanised welding processes include:
- Resistance welding, spot welding being the most common process – a mechanised process widely used in industry for making products such as cars or white goods such as washing machines.
- Laser and electron beam welding – a high-tech process used in making specialist products such as medical and aeronautical equipment.
Welders working in the manufacturing industry are more likely to work as part of a production team, although some types of mechanised welding are carried out by robots, especially in the car industry. Welding technicians set up, programme and control the processes. The automotive industry requires welders to build, maintain and repair vehicles to make sure they can withstand the pressures and forces they are subjected to, and make sure they are safe for the driver and any passengers.
Sheet metal workers are specialist welders who work from blueprints or plans to create, install and repair items made with sheet metals. These skills are required for a range of applications across different industries from automotive to power.
Welders are required on construction projects of all sizes, to do anything from fixing machinery to building bridges. Welders may help to construct the steel frames for buildings, support industrial projects, or even work underwater on oil rigs. Residential construction welders tend to take on smaller tasks such as joining pipes to supply utilities to a home(s).
Pipefitting specialised welders work in industries including power, oil and gas and water utilities. They plan, install and repair pipe networks for given industrial uses. This means that they may be involved in planning the type and size of pipe to be used. Pipes are often manufactured off-site and then transported to a location for installation and testing, meaning that pipefitting welders are required both off and on-site, while all repair and maintenance takes place on location.
Industrial maintenance welders maintain industrial machinery and equipment to ensure they do not need immediate repair, inspecting assets for any breaks or leaks and repairing any problems. Being able to modify and repair equipment as required, these welders work in a wide range of industrial settings.
Welding is vital to the shipyard industry for shipbuilding, repair and maintenance. It is important that welds are oil and watertight, with shipyard welders working at shipyards as well as on a range of different vessels, including those for cargo, research or military purposes. These welders frequently travel between different ports although others may be employed to travel with a ship. Nuclear welders work in hazardous environments on submarines, ships or at nuclear reactors.
One of the most dangerous professions is underwater welders who work in the water itself or within closed, dry compartments that are lowered into the water. Working on pipelines, ships, nuclear plants, dams, offshore rigs and power assets, and more, these welders can be subjected to high water pressures and other hazards.
Generic to all roles is ensuring compliance with all relevant policies and procedures, and legal and regulatory requirements including health and safety. Welders may be working alone, or will be working closely alongside others to deliver high-quality work. The above lists are not exhaustive and there is often a crossover of duties between roles of welders. Whatever the environment they work in, welders will be responsible for ensuring the safety of their work and any equipment to protect the safety of themselves and other people.
What are the main health and safety risks welders can encounter?
The welding environment presents various hazards that can endanger the safety and well-being of workers if proper precautions are not taken.
Electric shock is one of the most severe risks welders face and can be fatal. An electric shock occurs when a welder directly contacts two metal objects with a voltage between them.
There are two types of electric shock:
- Primary Voltage Shock – This can occur when a welder touches a part of the energised welding or electrode circuit at a voltage potential. These circuits have enough voltage to cause a fatal electric shock.
- Secondary Voltage Shock – This is the most common type of electric shock. It happens when a welder touches a part of the welding or electrode circuit with one hand while the other hand touches a portion of the metal being welded, which is grounded. The voltage involved here is lower, but under certain conditions can still cause death.
Welding machines and the workpiece should be properly grounded. Grounding provides a safe, controlled path for electric current to reduce the risk of electric shock. Also, use safety equipment such as insulated electrode holders, and never use holders with damaged insulation. Welders should keep their work environment dry as much as possible. Electric current can travel through a wet environment or wet clothing more easily, increasing the risk of shock.
Welding produces fumes and gases that can be harmful and, in some cases, deadly if inhaled. The specific fumes and gases produced depend on the type of welding being performed and the materials being used. These can include gases such as argon, helium, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and others. The fumes can contain potentially harmful metals such as aluminium, beryllium, lead and manganese, among others. Prolonged exposure to these fumes and gases can lead to several health issues. Short-term effects include dizziness, nausea and irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. Long-term exposure can lead to serious health problems like lung damage, cancer and neurological effects.
Ventilation is one of the simplest and most effective methods of controlling welding fumes. The workspace should be well-ventilated to dilute the concentration of fumes and gases. Natural ventilation can be sufficient for some types of welding, although mechanical ventilation systems may be necessary for more intense welding operations or welding in a confined space.
Fume extraction systems are designed to remove the fumes at the source before they can be inhaled by the welder. This can include on-gun extraction or larger extraction systems for fixed workstations. Regular maintenance of these systems is crucial to ensure they are working properly.
Even with good ventilation and fume extraction, some respiratory protection may still be necessary, particularly for certain welding or confined spaces. This can range from simple dust masks to more complex respirators, depending on the level of protection needed. We will look at PPE later in this guide.
The welding process generates a lot of heat, sparks and hot spatter, which can easily ignite combustible and flammable materials. In fact, welding is one of the leading causes of industrial fires and explosions. The danger can be exacerbated if welding is performed near storage areas for flammable substances or in environments where flammable vapours or gases may be present.
Welding can also cause “hidden fires”. These fires start in hidden areas, such as inside a wall or underneath the flooring, due to sparks or hot metal getting into small cracks and igniting materials hours after welding has finished.
Fire safety is an essential part of any workplace environment and is a serious subject, and precautions must be taken by all workplaces. The most effective way to prevent fires is to remove all flammable and combustible materials from where welding is performed. This includes obvious items such as paper and fabric and less obvious ones such as dust, grease, and flammable liquids or gases. A fire watch should be posted for any welding operations near flammable materials that can’t be moved. This person’s job is to watch for any signs of fire during and after welding and welders should always keep an appropriate fire extinguisher nearby when welding. Welders should be trained in how to use the extinguisher correctly.
It is also vital to ensure that emergency lighting is installed and that staff know where fire extinguishers are located, where their nearest fire exit is, and that emergency exits are clear at all times. Regular fire alarm testing should take place as well as regular fire evacuation tests.
Employers and management need to be able to confirm that:
- Firefighting equipment is in place
- Fire evacuation procedures are clearly displayed
- All staff are aware of the evacuation drill, including arrangements for any vulnerable adults
In order to remain effective, fire risk assessments must be kept up to date. It is recommended that the responsible person completes a fire risk assessment at least once a year, and must conduct a review whenever there is a significant change in the environment.
The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (PUWER) place duties on people and companies who own, operate or have control over work equipment. PUWER also places responsibilities on businesses and organisations whose employees use work equipment, whether owned by them or not.
PUWER requires that equipment provided for use at work is:
- Suitable for the intended use.
- Safe for use, maintained in a safe condition and inspected to ensure it is correctly installed and does not subsequently deteriorate.
- Accompanied by suitable health and safety measures, such as protective devices and controls. These will normally include emergency stop devices, adequate means of isolation from sources of energy, clearly visible markings and warning devices.
- Used in accordance with specific requirements.
Generally, any equipment which is used by an employee at work is covered by PUWER, for example hammers, knives, ladders, drilling machines, power presses, circular saws, photocopiers, lifting equipment (including lifts), dumper trucks and motor vehicles. Similarly, workers providing their own equipment will be covered by PUWER and it will need to comply. Before starting any welding job, a welder should inspect the equipment for any damage, leaks or malfunctions and report any issues to the appropriate person; they must not use any faulty equipment.
Compressed gas cylinders are an essential component of many welding processes. However, they can pose significant risks if not handled and stored properly. One of the main hazards associated with compressed gas cylinders is their potential to become projectiles if damaged or mishandled. Gas cylinders must be kept away from heat sources, flames and flammable materials.
Avoid storing them near furnaces, welding arcs, or other heat-generated equipment. Gas cylinders must be stored in a secure and upright position. Use cylinder racks, stands or cages to prevent them from falling or being knocked over. Secure them to a fixed structure if necessary. Always keep the valve protection caps in place when the cylinder is not in use to prevent damage to the valve and accidental gas release.
Welding arcs produce bright visible light and ultraviolet (UV) and infrared (IR) radiation.
Exposure to these forms of radiation can have several harmful effects:
- UV Radiation – UV radiation from the welding arc can cause a “welder’s flash” or “arc eye”, a painful condition where the cornea is inflamed. Long-term exposure to UV radiation can lead to cataracts.
- IR Radiation – Infrared radiation is primarily a source of heat. High levels of IR radiation can cause burns to the skin and eyes.
- Visible Light – The intense visible light produced by a welding arc can cause damage to the retina, which may be either temporary or permanent.
Taking regular breaks can reduce a welder’s total radiation exposure. Welding curtains or screens can be used to protect other workers in the area from the welding arc’s radiation. Welders should avoid looking at the welding arc without eye protection as even brief exposure can cause damage to the eyes.
Welding often involves the use of heavy equipment and materials, and the nature of the work can put welders at risk for various types of physical injuries. Manual handling injuries have a major impact on all workplaces and sectors, costing the economy hundreds of millions every year. Manual handling encompasses a wide range of actions including lifting, lowering, pulling, pushing, and carrying awkward and heavy objects; the risks are endless for welders who may experience manual handling injuries such as:
- Back injuries
- Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) such as shoulder strain
- Repetitive strain injury (RSI) such as wrist strain
- Soft-tissue injuries to the wrists, arms, shoulders, legs or neck
- Long-term pain in the arms, legs or joints
Overexertion is something that is easily done in any environment and can be difficult to avoid. Overexertion is usually caused by someone trying to lift or move something heavier than their capabilities or doing so incorrectly. Manual handling tasks should be avoided wherever possible. Where it isn’t possible to avoid handling a load, suitable safety measures should be introduced such as welders having the use of trollies or lifting equipment to move heavy items, and welders should receive manual handling training to prevent and avoid injury.
Repetitive Stress Injuries (RSIs), also known as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), are common among welders due to the repetitive nature of the work and the physical demands placed on the body. These injuries can affect the muscles, tendons, ligaments and other soft tissues, causing pain, discomfort and reduced mobility, and include:
- Tendonitis – Inflammation of tendons, typically in the hands, wrists and elbows.
- Carpal Tunnel Syndrome – Compression of the median nerve in the wrist, leading to numbness, tingling and weakness in the hand and fingers.
- Epicondylitis – Inflammation of the tendons in the elbow, commonly known as tennis elbow.
- Back Strain – Muscle strain or sprain in the back due to heavy lifting or poor posture.
- Neck and Shoulder Pain – Resulting from long awkward positions and repetitive movements.
Ergonomically designed tools and equipment can help to reduce strain on the body. This can include adjustable workbenches, ergonomic welding torch handles and supportive seating, and adjusting the height of the welding table, chair and equipment can help to ensure a comfortable working position. Engaging in exercises that target the muscles used in welding help to improve strength and flexibility.
Poor housekeeping in welding workspaces can create hazardous conditions that increase the risk of accidents and injuries. Cluttered work areas can lead to tripping hazards, falling objects and difficulty in manoeuvring safely. Slips, trips and falls are one of the top three causes of non-fatal work injuries involving days away from work. Each year they cause thousands of preventable injuries, and they can cause various injuries such as bruises, sprains, scrapes, broken bones and head traumas. Around 1,000 of these injuries involve someone fracturing bones or dislocating joints.
Key aspects of slips and trips include:
- Uneven surfaces
- Trailing cables
- Wet or slippery surfaces
- Changes in level
Keep work area floors clean, orderly and dry and keep surfaces free of hazards such as sharp objects, loose boards, corrosions, leaks, spills, snow and ice. Signpost any slippery areas and make sure footwear with a good grip is worn.
Industrial noise pollution, caused by machinery and welding equipment can have a detrimental effect on people’s mental and physical well-being.
Prolonged exposure to noise can lead to:
- Stress and anxiety
- Productivity loss
- Communication issues
- Cardiovascular diseases
- Nervous disorders
- Neurological problems
Welders participating in noise-heavy activities must wear ear protective equipment at all times.
Fatigue or dehydration are significant risks for welders, both having considerable impacts on health and safety. Fatigue is characterised by a chronic decline in physical and cognitive function.
Dehydration is also characterised by reductions in mental performance, mood, cognition and physical work rates. It is important to recognise that although sweating is a significant contributor to dehydration for those working long periods in hot environments, dehydration can occur at any time when a fluid deficit is allowed to develop. This can include over long shifts in low-humidity, airconditioned or hot environments, and can even occur in winter when hydration is often overlooked.
Ensure adequate, structured rest breaks; not only does this allow time for recovery, but it also allows for regular drinking, whereby the individual consumes fluid consistently over their shift rather than in large doses at limited intervals.
Maintaining a safe work environment is important, particularly in the high-risk work environment faced by welders. It is important that every hazard is met with elimination or, at the minimum, a control measure to mitigate any potential risk.
Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999), the minimum a business must do is:
- Identify what could cause injury or illness in your business (hazards)
- Decide how likely it is that someone could be harmed and how seriously (the risk)
- Take action to eliminate the hazard or, if this isn’t possible, control the risk
Risk assessment requires making a judgement on Risk Severity. Risk Severity = probability of risk materialising x impact of risk on, for example, a person or people, a business, a property etc.
Probability may be understood as:
- Low (Level 1) – a reasonably informed person would think it very unlikely this risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
- Medium (Level 2) – a reasonably informed person would think there is a significant possibility this risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
- High (Level 3) – a reasonably informed person would think there is a very significant or even likely possibility the risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
Impact may be understood as:
- Low (Level 1) – any impact that is minimal, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact is isolated and short-lived.
- Medium (Level 2) – any impact that is significant, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact is limited to one function or group, but there is a material operational impact and the effects may continue.
- High (Level 3) – any impact that is severe, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact impairs a critical function and/or has a systemic impact and the effects may be long-lasting or permanent.
Welders must ensure an assessment has been made of any hazards, which covers:
- What the potential hazard is – the risk assessment should take into consideration, for example, the type of equipment used, the way in which it is used and the environment it is used in
- Who or what could be harmed by the hazard
- How the level of risk has been established
- The precautions taken to eliminate or control that risk
Managing risk is an ongoing process that is triggered when changes affect a welder’s work activities; changes such as, but not limited to:
- Changing work practices, procedures or the work environment
- Purchasing new or used equipment or using new substances
- Workforce changes
- Planning to improve efficiency or reduce costs
- New information about the workplace risks becomes available
Risk assessments should be recorded and records regularly reviewed and updated whenever necessary. Should an accident occur, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) will request copies of the risk assessments.
There are a number of laws and regulations that apply to a welder’s health and safety including, but not limited to:
The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 and the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005 apply to all construction sites.
HSE Guidance welding fume 2019 is a strengthening of the HSE’s enforcement expectation for all welding fume, including mild steel welding.
Under the Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 (MHOR), manual handling which might cause injury is prohibited unless an assessment has been made, and if the operation cannot be avoided, suitable control measures should be in place. In all cases, reasonable alternatives to manual handling should be employed.
It is a requirement of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health regulations (COSHH) for employers to assess all exposures to hazardous substances in the workplace and implement necessary control measures in order to protect their workers’ health.
The Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 (DSEAR) state the legal requirements for managing the risk of fire, explosion or similar events arising from dangerous substances at the workplace.
Why is PPE important
Personal protective equipment (PPE) protects workers from hazards such as trips, burns, electrocution, infections and falls. While there is some PPE that is universal to many occupations, welders have certain PPE which is specific to their job.
This includes, but is not limited to:
- Welding Helmets – A welding helmet fitted with the appropriate filtered lens is crucial to protect the eyes and face from radiation. The lens shade should be chosen based on the type and intensity of the welding being done.
- Face Shield – This protects the face and eyes from radiation, flying particles, debris, slag, sparks, intense light, irritation and chemical burns. Where appropriate, fire-resistant head and neck coverings can be worn under the helmet as long as it doesn’t impact the shield’s fit and level of protectiveness. These balaclava style hoods prevent spatter from rolling down the welders’ necks or burning their scalps.
- Safety Glasses – Welders should wear safety glasses with side shields under their helmet for additional eye protection, particularly from reflected or scattered light.
- Protective Clothing – Long-sleeved shirts, trousers without cuffs, high shoes, and a cap under the helmet can protect the skin from UV radiation. Fire-resistant treated cotton or wool is preferable. Synthetic materials should be avoided as they can melt and cause burns.
- Ear Protection – Earmuffs or earplugs should be worn, especially during high-volume welding operations. These devices reduce the level of noise that reaches the ears. Various types of ear protection are available, including disposable earplugs, reusable earplugs, and earmuffs. The choice depends on the noise level, comfort and personal preference.
- Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) – This helps to protect welders from fumes and oxides that have been associated with occupational lung disease. The requirement for this type of protection is dependent on the nature of the contaminant, and the concentration of the contaminant in the air; consider wearing advanced RPE (battery-powered air-fed protective equipment) for work longer than an hour.
- Safety Gloves – Insulated gloves protect hands and arms from heat, burns, radiation and electric shocks. Depending on the task at hand, cut-resistant gloves are also a must for welders.
- Footwear – Robust footwear ideally rubber-soled with steel-toe caps can help protect from heat, burns, radiation and electric shocks, as well as dropped objects and puncture or penetration wounds, for example from stepping on a sharp object.
What training should welders take?
Depending upon their role, welders will have completed training and qualifications specific to the industry that they work in. In addition to their occupational training welders will need to participate in adequate health and safety training to ensure that they are competent to do their work.
When welders are trained to work safely, they should be able to anticipate and avoid injury from job-related hazards. Safety training is essential for welders appropriate to their role, and training should be directly applicable to the responsibilities and daily practices of the person being trained.
This training for welders might include, but is not limited to:
- Health and Safety for Employees
- Health and Safety for Managers
- Welding Awareness
- Manual Handling
- Workplace First Aid
- Slips, Trips and Falls
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
- PUWER Awareness
- Assessing Risk
- Electrical Safety Awareness
- DSEAR Awareness
- Fire Safety Awareness
- COSHH Awareness
Welders should at a minimum refresh their safety training at least every 2 years and participate in continuing professional development (CPD).
Get started on a course suitable for welders
Welding Awareness£20 + VAT View course
COSHH Awareness£20 + VAT View course
Assessing Risk (Risk Assessment Course)£20 + VAT View course
Manual Handling£20 + VAT View course
Workplace First Aid£20 + VAT View course
Fire Safety Awareness£20 + VAT View course
Slips, Trips and Falls£20 + VAT View course
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)£20 + VAT View course
Electrical Safety Awareness£20 + VAT View course
DSEAR Awareness£20 + VAT View course
PUWER Awareness£20 + VAT View course
Health and Safety for Employees£20 + VAT View course
Health and Safety for Managers£49 + VAT View course