As jobs go, welding is perhaps the only one that touches on so many areas of personal safety. Although it is a common task within a variety of industries, the risks are high and the tolerance for making mistakes is low.
Welding, cutting and brazing are dangerous activities that combine immediate safety and long-term health risks, for a potent one-two punch. From fire and burns, to fumes, electric shock and physical injury, these tasks present real hazards to hundreds of thousands of workers on a daily basis. The percentage of fatal injuries is also higher than many other job types, and this is compounded by the potential of working within confined spaces or at heights.
Regulations & Training
Welding as an industry is closely regulated, and it is every employer’s responsibility to ensure that all standards are being met and that all personnel are properly trained. Whether it is utilized as a primary part of the business or used only occasionally, it is critical that everyone involved fully understand all operating procedures and safety measures. Any worker who undertakes a welding function must be certified to do so, and in the specific type of welding required. Inspectors must also be certified, especially where it applies to building and structural standards.
It is highly recommended that companies develop and maintain comprehensive procedural, safety and training processes, and that consultation is conducted with local, regional and federal agencies to ensure full regulatory compliance.
More information can be found at the following websites:
Risks & Hazards
No matter the welding type or the materials being used, there are specific hazards that arise that can cause immediate injury or longer-term health risks. The following is a listing of common safety issues.
Fire & Explosions
The risk of fire should always be a concern due to the high heat, sparks and spatter that result whenever welding or torch cutting is taking place.
- All companies should have a fire protection plan in-place, with adequate fire fighting equipment within reach. Ensure that all workers are properly trained and that everyone understands evacuation procedures.
- Before you start, be sure to inspect the work area and remove any combustible materials. Remember that sparks can travel up to 35 feet, so don’t cut corners with your prep. Extra diligence would apply if welding is being conducted overhead.
- It’s a good idea to cover any equipment or combustible items that can’t be moved, with a fire resistant shield or blanket. Welding areas can also be limited or contained in the same way.
- As a back-up measure, assign fire-watch personnel to keep an eye on the area, to ensure that sparks haven’t slipped through somewhere. Also make it a habit to monitor welding areas for a full 30 minutes after the work has been completed, to be sure that there is no lingering danger.
- Follow proper procedures for monitoring air quality to avoid the risk of flash fire or explosion in the event of a build-up of combustible gas or dust particles. This would especially apply when working in confined spaces.
The use of compressed gases can be dangerous at the best of times, but when you factor-in the heat and sparks that are generated while welding, the hazard grows exponentially.
For detailed information on compressed gas safety, see our related SafetyLink article.
Arc welding uses electricity as its energy source, so the risk of electric shock is always present. It is perhaps the most serious and immediate hazard that a welder faces, and can lead to severe injury or death. The most common injuries occur through secondary voltage shock through contact with an arc welding circuit. The voltage can be high in these cases, so accidental contact should be avoided at all costs.
- Never touch the electrode or the metal parts of the holder with skin or clothing. Remember that they are always ‘hot’ whether welding is taking place or not. Also be sure that any insulation on conductive parts of equipment is in good repair.
- Always use dry welding gloves and avoid damp work conditions where possible. Moisture and electricity never make for a good combination.
- Be sure to properly insulate workers from the material being welded and from the ground in order to limit any potential conductivity.
- Workers should never touch any electrically hot parts inside welding equipment, as the risk for a more severe, or primary, shock is very high. Only qualified technicians should attempt to service or repair welding equipment.
Personal injury ranks as the most common mishap when it comes to welding or cutting. There are a lot of potentially dangerous elements in-play at the same time, so the use of proper personal protective equipment (PPE) is critical.
- Damage to the eyes from ultraviolet light is perhaps the most reported injury while welding or working in the area. A suitable helmet, goggles or cutting glasses MUST be worn at all times. Eye protection is rated by number depending on the type of job being done, so be sure to have the right gear before you start.
- Let’s face it, those sparks get everywhere, so workers will require full protection from them and any other potential burns. All protective work wear must be rated as flame-resistant and include gloves and head/face protection, in addition to other items such as coveralls, hoods, bibs, aprons, capes, supplementary sleeves and boots.
- Leather work boots should fit above the ankle and be rated for electrical protection (non conducting)
- Be sure to use adequate hearing protection (ear muffs or plugs) rated for the type of work being done
- Dangerous fumes are a by-product of the welding process and must be accounted for in order to maintain safe air quality for everyone in the area. Natural ventilation only works so well, and is limited by the amount of open space available. Normally, mechanical ventilation must be provided to fully remove any hazardous fumes. This is typically in the form of exhaust fans/hoods, but the system should also be supplemented with personal respiration devices. The specs and types of devices will be determined by the nature of the materials being welded, if they are coated, and what the overall atmosphere holds. There are strict guidelines for air quality thresholds that must be monitored on an ongoing basis.
- Welding, cutting and brazing should be conducted by qualified and authorized personnel only
- Ensure that everyone is completely familiar with the manufacturer instructions for the equipment being used
- Regularly inspect all welding equipment and repair or replace any parts that are broken or are showing excessive wear
- Post clear signage in areas where welding is taking place, to warn others of the potential danger
- Keep work areas clutter-free to avoid slips and falls
- Any chemical containers being welded need to be thoroughly cleaned of any potentially combustible materials or residue
Awareness, training and diligence are key factors when it comes to welding safety. It’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure a safe and productive work environment.