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Of all those who work in the construction industry, welders have the highest occupational risk. Welding is known for its risks, hazards and fatalities, with welders facing hazards such as full-thickness burns, electrical shock, brain damage, and loss of vision. According to statistics, welding accidents make up around 25% of fatal accidents in the workplace and one-third of amputations (non-fatal) are from welding accidents.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the United States, 1 in every 250 construction workers will end up in a fatal accident when welding. In this article, we’ll talk about the hazards of welding and what workers and employers need to do to avoid injuries and fatalities.
What is welding?
Welding is a process that joins materials together. It usually involves joining thermoplastics and metals by melting them together with high heat and then letting them cool, fusing them together.
Welding shouldn’t be confused with soldering and brazing as these techniques use much lower temperatures and don’t melt the parent (base) metal.
As well as melting the parent metal, there is usually a filler material added along the joint that, with the heat, forms a weld pool. This is a pool of molten material that forms the join when it cools. This means that the material and join are often stronger than the parent material.
Sometimes pressure is also used as well as heat. Pressure can even be used alone to produce the weld. When welding, there needs to be a type of shield that protects the melted or filler metals from oxidising or being contaminated.
There are lots of different sources of energy used when it comes to welding. You can weld with a gas flame – a chemical weld, an electric arc – an electrical weld, an electron beam, ultrasound, a laser, or friction.
Though welding is mainly an industrial practice, it is used in lots of different places such as under water and outer space as well as in the open air.
Given the high temperatures and fumes involved, welding is potentially dangerous and risky. Welders and their employers are required to put measures into place to avoid things like electric shock, burns, damage to vision, poisonous fume and gas inhalation, and exposure to intense UV radiation.
Importance of welding health and safety
Given the potential hazards, welding health and safety is paramount. Welding presents many hazards to people who are doing the welding and those nearby. Thus, it’s essential for all involved to be aware of the potential hazards of welding and to know what precautions can be taken for protection.
Hazards of welding in confined spaces
Welding is dangerous as it is but when you’re doing it in a confined space, extra precautions need to be taken as there are extra risks.
In confined spaces, the most significant danger (and the most common cause of fatalities) is asphyxiation. Thus, extra diligence is needed.
When we talk about welding in confined spaces, we mean that the exit and entry are restricted. A confined space isn’t necessarily a small area or cramped space. If, for example, ventilation is more restricted, we would consider this to be a confined space due to the fact that hazardous gases can build up. As a result, welders who work in a confined space could need extra equipment to protect and monitor them and the environment in addition to their standard PPE for welding.
Welding risks for confined spaces
When you weld in a confined space, some existing hazards are more intense and need more focus.
Fume build-up and lack of ventilation
Maintaining breathable air in confined spaces is tricky because gases and fumes can build and displace the oxygen. Thus, the situation can become potentially fatal and there won’t necessarily be a warning since the gases and fumes can’t be seen or smelled.
Here are some safety suggestions:
- Test the atmosphere in the space beforehand. The atmosphere should have around 21% oxygen and shouldn’t have explosive, flammable or toxic vapours and gases.
- Use a gas detection device to monitor the levels in the space.
- Use breathing protection that is appropriate for welding.
Risk of entrapment or falls
In a confined space, there is a risk of trips or falls when entering or exiting the space. If the surface is greasy or wet, a welder might slip and could be trapped in a way that restricts breathing.
Here are some safety suggestions:
- Ensure the floors of the confined space are free from grease, water and obstacles.
- Have a plan for emergency retrieval or evacuation and ensure adequate rescue equipment is available.
- Wear insulated, non-slip safety boots.
You need to pay attention to electrical hazards if you’re welding in confined spaces that are made of metal. Examples include tanks, pipes and vessels. The enclosure metal will be part of the circuit and you could be standing on a part of the vessel that’s electrically charged. Any metal touched could also be in the welding circuit.
Here are some safety suggestions:
- To reduce the risks of having an electric shock, it is always recommended that the electric welding power source is not located within the confined space and that all of the cables in the area have appropriate insulation.
- All people in the area should be insulated from the ground and the workpiece by dry insulation.
Radiation and heat can be dangerous
Whenever you weld inside a confined space that contains a reflective alloy or metal like stainless steel or aluminium, you can have problems with UV radiation and glare. The existing risks of arc burns, ‘arc eye’ or arc flash are higher.
Here are some safety suggestions:
- Heat and radiation shields should be used. Welding helmets with a variety of shades, delays and sensitivities are available.
- When welding for a long time and in high heat, it’s important to keep hydrated to avoid heat exhaustion and dehydration.
Explosion and fire risk
When considering welding safety, explosion and fire risk are huge concerns. This is because it is dangerous for flammable vapours and gas to gather in confined spaces. When welding, these might ignite, which can lead to an explosion. When people work in a confined space, there should be a welding safety system that assigns responsibilities and details what happens before the welding, during the welding, and after the welding.
Here are some safety considerations that should be included in the welding safety system:
1. What is the place used for?
2. Are there any potential physical or chemical hazards that could need purging or cleaning before welding?
3. What ventilation requirements are needed?
All personnel need training for the place and conditions they’ll be working in. The training should cover the welding hazards involved in being in a confined space.
Hazards and risks during welding
Aside from the welding hazards associated with confined spaces, there are general hazards for all welding work. Let’s take a look at some of the most common ones.
Exposure to fumes and gases
One of the most significant welding hazards is being exposed to invisible fumes and gases. These include nitrogen oxides, ozone, carbon monoxide, and nickel and chromium oxides and they can penetrate the lungs.
Depending on which fume or gas is involved and how long the person was exposed, the damage can be very severe.
It’s worth bearing in mind that there is no safe exposure minimum for fumes from welding. A person’s employer is required by law to control all exposure to welding fume effectively.
Employers have to provide RPE – respiratory protective equipment – if extra controls are needed for exposure limitation.
Problems associated with welding gases and fumes
Regular exposure or severe exposure to welding gases and fumes can cause:
- Occupational asthma.
- Metal fume fever.
- Lung and throat irritation.
Explosions and fires
Explosions and fires are two big hazards associated with hot work activities like welding. Of course, there are severe consequences. These include damage to property, serious injuries and death.
When arc welding, a molten metal pool is created by a live electrical circuit. So, when a person is welding, they are at risk of getting an electric shock. This is a serious welding hazard and can cause a serious injury or death. The risk of injury or death is not just from the shock itself but also from the potential risk of falling from a height.
There is also the risk of secondary electric shock too. This occurs if you touch the electrode of the welding circuit while touching the metal being worked on.
Electrical shocks are more likely:
- If you’re in damp conditions.
- If you’re wearing wet clothes.
- If you’re working on a metal floor or structure.
- If you’re in a confined space that requires lying down, kneeling or crouching.
When you do welding, you can be exposed to prolonged, loud noises. A noise is considered excessive if it’s above 85 dB. Air arc gouging and flame cutting are capable of producing noises over 100 dB. At this level, they can result in a hearing impairment and ear damage.
Immediate noise exposure or regular noise exposure can cause permanent hearing loss.
This can have the following effects:
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ears).
- Vertigo (dizziness).
- Increased blood pressure.
- Increased heart rate.
Exposure to UV
Looking at the UV light when welding and not wearing welding PPE or using welding curtains can cause a painful and often long-lasting problem called ‘arc eye’.
There are lots of factors that affect flash burn injuries. These include duration, angle and distance.
With long-term exposure, it’s possible to get vision loss and cataracts.
Other eye damage caused by welding
Other eye welding hazards include:
- Gases and fumes from particulates can cause conjunctivitis.
- Foreign bodies getting into the eye like dust, sparks and grit.
One of the many severe welding hazards comes in the form of burns from molten metal, UV rays or welding arcs.
Burns can be on the eyes or skin and can be really serious. They can happen suddenly. Burns often happen when welders get distracted or skip precautions for a few welds, which is obviously bad practice.
How to control hazards and risks from welding
Welders need to follow the information given to them by their employer.
Employers have a duty by law to make sure their welders are trained. They also need to make sure that their employees and anyone close by are briefed.
Information about equipment needs to be communicated and control measures from risk assessments should be used.
Welders have a responsibility to ensure their health and safety and others’ health and safety close by.
- Follow the instruction and training that their employer provides.
- Cooperate with employers in all health and safety matters.
- Implement control measures properly as stipulated in the risk assessment.
Carry out checks before welding
There should be pre-welding checks of the equipment before it’s used to check that everything is undamaged, clean and rated correctly.
It is the employer who should provide the employee with the right information to carry out checks.
If during the checks you notice damaged insulation on electrode/torch holders, clamps, plugs or cables, you shouldn’t use the equipment.
Have regular health checks
Generally, all employees that are exposed to fumes from welding should have their health checked regularly. Health checks are essential in ensuring that problems can be detected early. It also helps employers to know when the control measures might not be sufficient.
Employees must cooperate with health checks required by their employer.
Welding safety precautions
It is essential to ensure precautions are followed for all welding activities. Employers have a legal responsibility to make sure they assess, control and monitor workplace risks. They have to make sure that risk assessments are undertaken of both the work activities and the workplace.
Make proper use of engineering controls and respiratory protective equipment (RPE)
From the Safety Alert in 2019, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) strengthened the rules around welding fumes.
Employers now have to make sure that there are controls for welding in place, no matter how long the activity will last. General room ventilation isn’t enough to reduce exposure to fumes. When engineering controls aren’t enough, employers must provide RPE – even outdoors.
Employers must provide welding PPE – personal protective equipment.
This might include:
- RPE – respiratory protective equipment.
- Helmet with a side shield. A welding helmet protects from debris, chemical burns, hot slag, particles, and UV radiation. The helmet should have the right shade of lens for the work being done. It should have good visibility and shouldn’t irritate the eyes. A helmet must always be worn, even if you’re not welding but are close to another welder. If you are within ten metres, you can still get arc eye.
- Fire-resistant clothing. This will protect from fire, radiation and heat created during welding. It will stop you from getting burns. The clothing shouldn’t have open pockets or cuffs and shouldn’t be synthetic fabric. Rather, it should be flame-resistant cotton or leather. It’s also important not to roll up trousers or sleeves as this would leave you open to sparks or molten material contacting the skin or getting into folds. Trousers should never be tucked into boots either as this means sparks could get between the trousers and the boots.
- Hearing protection. Ear defenders will protect from noise hazards. The ear defenders should be appropriate for the task and fire-resistant.
- Gloves and boots. Flame and insulated resistant gloves and steel toe-capped, rubber-soled boots should be worn to protect from heat, fire, electric shocks, falling objects and burns.
Welding is dangerous and doing this activity does come with risks. With proper training, adequate checks, appropriate risk assessments and control measures like welding PPE, welding hazards can be minimised. Finally, there is no room for complacency with welding. Even a small job requires the same diligence and measures as a longer job.