Welding Safety 101 – the definitive guide

As a welder, or a prospective welder, you must realize the welding safety is paramount in everything you do.  If you are a lone welder, your own livelihood…indeed, your own life, depends on it.  If you are a part of a team, your team’s livelihood and lives are dependent on it.  If you run a business that employs welders, you understand that their ability to continue doing their work without injury is just good business and is the right way to take care of your employees.  There are few jobs these days that pose as much immediate as well as long term health and injury risks as welding and yet, with proper preparation and a solid understanding of the risks, welding can be a safe profession.  There also must be an open and caring atmosphere where safety concerns and violations are encouraged to be reported to reduce the chances of it happening again.

The near miss accident that is reported today is the accident that doesn’t happen tomorrow.

This is a long article so a Table of Contents is provided up front as well as easy links throughout to navigate.

  1. Electricity
  2. Fire
  3. Gas and Oxygen
  4. Laser welding and cutting
  5. Grinding and Cutting
  6. Workplace
  7. Co-Workers
  8. Eyes and skin
  9. Self
  10. First Aid Kits

 


Electricity

  1. It’s no secret that electricity can be dangerous.  It’s also no secret that welder use electricity in, often, unusual conditions.  The two of these facts marry together to present welders with a higher than average likelihood of experiencing electrical related injuries.
  2. First, you should understand a bit about electricity…the basics:
    • Amperage – this is the measure of how much current is flowing.     When dealing with electricity, it’s the amperage that you need to be very aware of.
      • 1 milliamp(mA)… a thousands of an amp, is barely perceptible
      • 16 mA is about the most a person can take and still voluntarily “let go” of a hot wire
      • 20 mA can cause paralysis of respiratory muscles (you can stop breathing)
      • 100mA can cause ventricular fibrillation (your heart freaks out)
      • 2 Amps can cause your heart to stop and internal organs to be damage
      • How many Amps does a standard Welding stinger produce?  300 Amps as a minimum.  So a shock from a standard stinger far exceeds the point of “ventricular fibrillation”.
    • Voltage – this is the difference of potential.  120 Volts means there is 120 volts of difference between the positive and the negative leads, for example
    • Resistance – this is the load an item puts on the circuit.
  3. When a person receives a shock, it is usually a case of that person inserting themselves…a part of themselves…into the electrical circuit and completing that circuit somehow.  Consider a fuse as a very basic example.  When blown, it creates an “open” in the circuit that is (hopefully) too wide for the electricity to arc across.  If you lick your finger and put it in the place of the fuse, depending on the power of the circuit, it may be enough to send amperage, thereby causing a small shock.  The higher the voltage and the amperage, the more likely this would cause a shock.  As mentioned previously, welders work with very high amperage levels that make it very easy for a foreign substance…your finger for example…to complete the circuit in place of the expected fuse or metal connection.  When this happens, you’re being shocked.
  4. Standard precautions with dealing with electricity
    1. Be careful of where you are standing.  If you are working with electricity, standing in water is generally considered to be a bad idea.  Water is an excellent conductor of electricity.
    2. Careful of grounding your positive lead accidentally.  A “hot” wire or terminal brushing up against a ground will “complete the circuit”, allowing the entire amperage range to flow.  This is the spark you see when you move the grounding wire of a car battery, for example, to the negative terminal of the post.  That little arc is the build up of electricity to the point where it is jumping across the gap.
    3. Keep you hands and gloves dry when welding.  Remember, water is an excellent conductor so changing your welding electrode with a wet glove or a sweaty hand is asking for trouble.
    4. Always keep the welding transformer close and easily accessible to you or your coworkers…or even bystanders.  If something goes wrong, you don’t want to have to look for the master switch to turn everything off.
    5. Makes sure all of your cables and insulation is in good shape with no tears, fraying or bare wires where there shouldn’t be
    6. Never move your electrode holder and the welding return cable at the same time unless you are certain the welding equipment has been turned off.
    7. If you are working on an elevated platform of any kind, even a small shock can be dangerous as it can cause you to fall.
    8. At times, welding cables need to be spliced and reconnected…they live a hard life and need repairs.  A general rule is that no cables should be used if a splice is within 10 feet of the electrode holder.

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Fire

For welders and welding environments, fire is a constant concern.  Sparks, liquid metal, electricity…all contribute to the possibility of a fire or even an explosion.  Keep in mind that many welding related fires most frequently happen after the welding job is done – sparks from the welding or grinding job can travel throughout the area and get lodged into combustible material, causing a fire or explosion hazard well after the actual welding has completed.

Depending on the type of job, welding may be restricted to a specific area – a safe zone if you will.  If this is not the case, the welder and/or the welding team should ensure that all combustible materials are well out of the way before welding begins.  Once welding ends, the area should be observed for up to an hour to ensure no smoldering materials are left that could start a fire or cause an explosion.

Of course, your personal protective equipment is important here as well.  It’s been discussed elsewhere but is worth repeating.  Ensure your PPE is in good working order and ensure you are wearing the correct PPE for every job, no matter how small or quick it may be.

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Gas and Oxygen

Working with gas and oxygen is necessary for welders and is also one of the most potentially dangerous aspects of the job. Extreme care must be given.

  • When storing oxygen and acetylene cylinders, ensure they are properly secured and chained to prevent them from being knocked over or damaged.
  • Do not store them in direct sunlight, intense heat, intense cold, or direct contact with electrical sources.  Additionally, ensure they are stored in an area where they are safe from the normal welding processes that result in sparks or hot slag.
  • Oxygen and acetylene cylinders should be stored separately with at least a 20 foot distance between them or separated by some kind of noncombustible barrier.
  • Never use acetylene from a cylinder without reducing the pressure via an approved regulator valve.  Acetylene should not be used above 15 psi, so always ensure a regulator is used.
  • When using acetylene, the key or wrench to open the cylinder’s valve should be kept on the cylinder itself.  Also, for use, the valve itself should not be opened more than a single rotation.  The idea here is that if you need to close the valve quick, you know they key is there and a single rotation will close it.  In the case of an emergency, you don’t want to have to look for the key or to turn that valve too many times.

 

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Laser welding and cutting

Laser welding, by it’s very nature, results in radiation that is reflected from the workpiece into the environment – much of this is invisible so even if you don’t see the danger, it’s likely it is there. Your PPE is important to account for this even when you don’t see it as this radiation can burn your skin and your eyes quickly and permanently.  Along the same lines, fumes and mist are created when laser welding and these are often not visible either.  Again, your PPE comes to the rescue here.

Depending on the type of laser welding, the “coherent light” used may fall into the ultraviolet or infrared spectrum, which means it is basically invisible.  This presents a problem for the welder but an even bigger problem for the non-welder who may not know and probably won’t understand the dangers immediately.  For this reason, it’s critically important that laser welding is done in an area that is well blocked off from passers by and/or there is a co-worker that will ensure nobody accidentally walks into the welding area or crosses a danger zone.

Of course, as with everything else related to welding, there is also a concern for fire.  Lasers concentrate a large amount of energy into a small area by using coherent light (not scattered like normal light…like a light bulb).  This type of concentration, of course, creates incredible heat.  For this reason, it’s important to keep combustible materials and flammable liquids well away from laser welding areas.  There is no build up to the heat with a laser, it is full force immediately so the slightest touch of a laser on combustible material or flammable liquid will cause an immediate reaction.

Since lasers use high levels of energy, this is created from electricity so the above noted electrical concerns should all be heeded as well.

Lastly, laser welding sites are typically required to have a Laser Safety Officer (LSO) present.  The LSO is the single point of contact for all safety matters concerning laser welding so if there are questions about processes, equipment, material or PPE, the LSO can assist.

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Grinding and cutting

  1. Welders grind…and cut.  Accidents from grinding and cutting are not uncommon but a few points can make this part of your job much safer
    1. First point, of course, is to ensure you are wearing adequate personal protective equipment…gloves, face mask, protective eye wear, etc.  Even for a quick job, ensure the correct PPE is being worn.  Part of this is also to ensure you are not wearing loose fitting clothes or have any jewelry that may dangle and get in the way.
    2. Don’t use a cutting wheel for grinding and don’t use a grinding wheel for cutting.  Each type of wheel is manufactured to do a specific job and is not intended to endure the forces involved when doing the other job.  A cutting wheel is not meant to withstand lateral forces and can break.  A grinding wheel is not meant to withstand the vertical force used when cutting…and can break.  A wheel that breaks when being used can cause a lot of damage and injury.
    3. Inspect the wheel before you use it. Ping, or sound test with a piece of metal.  You should hear a ringing noise, not a dead, flat noise.  If the ping test results in a flat noise, the wheel is most likely damaged or cracked and, again, can break apart during use.
    4. Match the RPM rating on the wheel with that of the grinder and do not exceed the rating on the wheel.  A 9,00o RPM rated wheel should not be used at full speed on a 12,000 RPM rated grinder.  Keep in mind that these ratings are “no load” ratings, means the RPM when the grinder is spinning freely.  A 9,000 RPM rated when may only be spinning at 6500 RPM when actually under load and grinding or cutting, but it’s the no load RPM that is important here.
    5. Never use a grinder with one hand and never use a vise to hold a hand-held grinder.  Either approach can, and will, result in the grinder slipping and becoming impossible to control.
    6. Be hyper aware of your surroundings. Ensure any bystanders are aware that you are grinding.  Ensure the material you are working on is free of obstruction.  Welders tend to work in cramped spaces to make allowance for this when grinding.  Also, importantly, ensure that when grinding or cutting an item that the other parts of the grinding wheel do not come in contact with anything else.

The video below shows an example of a welder cutting and then welding – it gives a good idea of the amount of sparks that can result:

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Workplace

  • Tripping and falling
    • Hoses, cables, helmets, gloves and other work items are all trip hazards.  While welding, ensure that the cables and hoses you are using are as out-of-the-way as possible.   While not always possible to completely remove them, do your best and, if necessary, mark trip hazards so others are aware.
  • Mechanical Hazards
    • As mentioned several times now, the welder’s workplace is often in a location with a lot of machinery.  Be sure you are acutely aware of anything in your area to include overhead items as well.
  • Confined spaces
    • You won’t always be standing above an adjustable welding platform, comfortably doing your job.  Many times you’ll be contorted into a position laying on an angle iron while trying to twist your body around the bottom of a pipe to get to juuuust the right position to get that weld done perfectly.  These kinds of confined spaces are hard on the body so be sure to keep yourself in shape so you can best deal with these kinds of situations but also
  • Noise
    • Welding locations can be loud – be sure to have the best ear protection available.  This is one of those things that may be provided on the job site but most people have their preferred items to use so find a preferred item, and use it.

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Co-Workers and others

All of the information presented in this article, of course, applies to your co-workers every bit as much as it does for you.  As a professional, it’s part of your job to ensure others are following the safety standards so they are safe, you are safe, and anybody else in the area is safe.  A side effect to this is that any one of your co-workers that creates an unsafe working environment is endangering your ability to earn a living. If you are a part of a team on site, doing a job for a given customer, it doesn’t take too many safety violations before you are asked to leave.  Your customer cannot afford the liability of having an unsafe welding team working on their gear.  So a co-worker that is unsafe is not only endangering everybody’s health but also everybody’s ability to earn money.  Again, for the sake of general safety as well as your ability to earn a paycheck, it falls upon you, and every other welder, to ensure everybody that is wearing a welding helmet is practicing the best welding safety possible.

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Eyes and Skin

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a total of 27,450 eye injuries in 2018.  The categories were “rubbed or abraded by foreign matter in the eye”, “struck by flying object”, etc.

“Exposure to Welding Light” accounted for 1,390 of those reported injuries.  Seems a low number overall but keep in mind this is a single injury and these are just the ones that were actually reported.  https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/cwc/workplace-injuries-involving-the-eyes-2008.pdf

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Self

  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
  • Ergonomics
  • Contact lens
    • Welding with contact lenses is a popular topic.  You’ll hear some that say it is expressly forbidden – it should never happen. Others say it’s fine.  OSHA has said it is permissible as long as adequate eye protection is also used but they also caution that some welding environments, gas or vapors may be produced that can be harmful.
    • Along with the facts, you’ll also hear a number of stories about contacts being welded to the eye by too bright of an arc flash, or any number of other types of stories.  These are typically unsubstantiated urban welding myths.
  • Implanted medical devices
  • Reading (manuals and standards)
    • Every piece of welding equipment you use or wear has a manual that explains it’s specific use, care and maintenance.  Read them.  Welding is complex and dangerous work and is no place for a person who feels it is ok to “wing it” or to make it up as they go along.
    • OSHA is your friend, believe it or not.  Yes, they are also a pain in the ass but first, they are your friend.  They are dedicated to keeping you and others safe at all times.  They are dedicated to understanding working environments and doing the research to ensure the safest possible situations in all cases.  Not an easy thing to do.  Given their focus, they tend to be unpopular because they say you have to do this or that.  Keep in mind that extensive field research has determined that their “this and that” is the best way to keep you healthy and alive.  Don’t hate them..read and understand what they write.

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First Aid Kits

Every workstation and work area will have a first aid kit – it’s up to you to know where it is.  As mentioned…once or twice now…welding is dangerous work and you will most likely get burned.  Take care of those burns so they don’t get worse so you can continue to do your job.

It’s also not a terrible idea to carry your own preferred ointments and such with you on the job.  Most people have a preference – add your preferences to your to-do list for each job so you’ll have it on hand.  You can expect to see first aid kits everywhere but that doesn’t mean they’ll have what you specifically would prefer to use – so bring your own. You’re a rich welder, you can afford it.

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A lot of effort went into creating this Definitive Guide to Welding Safety and, as such, we used the below pages as references: