Welding and Cutting Operations Are Necessary, But Dangerous

George KennedySafe welding and cutting operations are necessary for most utility construction companies. However, the hazards associated with welding and cutting are often unknown to the welder or overlooked due to the lack of proper training. In order to prevent potentially deadly accidents and explosions, every worker who is permitted to weld should be properly trained and equipped to perform welding and cutting operations. In addition, managers and foremen should be trained to recognize the hazards, evaluate the risks and implement control measures. Workers and managers should also know the OSHA regulations for welding and cutting (1926.350 to .354). For example, did you know that a welder must be attached to a lifeline, and mechanical, general or local ventilation is required when welding or cutting in a confined space?

There are numerous hazards associated with welding and cutting, including burns, fires, explosions, toxic fumes, confined spaces, noise, electric shock, eye hazards, radiation, heat stress and awkward work positions. I doubt that I identified them all which is why it is so important for welders to be trained — and preferably certified — so they are aware of all the potential hazards. Supervisors, welders and helpers should be aware of the regulations, hazards and safety procedures.

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Before any welding takes place at the jobsite or in the shop, the work and the work area should be assessed. A video on YouTube titled “Drum Explodes During Welding, Killing Worker” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9DP5l9yYt-g) features a story about a welder who was killed while welding casters on an empty 55-gal drum. The drum originally contained acetone, so the welder purged the drum with water prior to proceeding. He thought he was doing things right, however, there were fatal consequences.

Numerous health hazards are associated with exposure to fumes, gases and ionizing radiation formed or released during welding, cutting and brazing. Health hazards include heavy metal poisoning, lung cancer, metal fume fever, flash burns and others. These risks vary, depending on the type of materials, welding surfaces, coatings, work area, personal protective equipment and ventilation.

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Inadequately trained welders do not recognize the hazards because the hazards are frequently unseen, in the form of metal fumes and gases. In fact, NIOSH has reported that “excesses in morbidity and mortality among welders appear to exist even when exposures have been reported to be below current OSHA permissible exposure levels (PEL) for many individual components of welding emissions.” With this in mind, it is vital to ensure that ventilation equipment is properly sized. In general, when welding is being done on metals that are not considered hazardous, a ventilation system should move a minimum of 2,000 cubic feet per minute (CFM) for each welder.

Materials such as galvanized metal, welding rod fluxes, some cleaning and de-greasing compounds, coatings or other materials containing fluorine compounds, zinc, lead, beryllium, cadmium and mercury are considered very dangerous. Welding or cutting materials that contain these substances require a much higher volume of fresh air ventilation, local exhaust ventilation to remove the fumes and/or the use of air-supplied respirators. Managers and workers should always refer to the Safety Data Sheets for all the materials that will be used and welded before the work begins.

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It is essential that the welders and helpers are properly clothed and protected because of the heat, ultraviolet (UV) radiation and sparks produced by welding and cutting operations. Let me be clear — dungarees and flannel shirts are not the proper clothing for this type of work. For body protection, both the welder and helper should wear fire-retardant, long-sleeved coveralls without cuffs or welder’s leathers and aprons. Clothing that burns or melts easily such as synthetics or nylon and clothing with tears or worn spots can ignite easily from sparks and should not be worn.

Hands and feet must be protected too. Protect hands with leather gauntlet gloves. To prevent sparks and slag from burning the worker’s feet, welders should be required to wear high-top leather shoes or boots that fit under the un-cuffed pant legs.

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Proper eye protection is essential. The selection of suitable eye protection depends on the type of welding to be done. A welding helmet with a filter plate with the proper shade number is necessary to protect the welder’s eyes from harmful UV rays. A welder’s helper must be required to wear safety glasses or goggles with a similar shade number. In many situations, standard sunglasses are not adequate to filter the rays. Never permit the use of cracked or broken filter, glasses or goggles. Safety glasses that meet ANSI standards should also be worn under the welding helmet to protect the welder when grinding or chipping operations are done and the mask is lifted up. If there are other workers in the area, require them to wear eye protection with the necessary shade number or place a fire-retardant welding screen between the welding operation and the workers.

Head protection is a subject of much confusion because many believe that you cannot wear head protection (hard hats) when wearing a welder’s face shield. The fact is there are face shields designed to be worn with hard hats and others with built-in head protection. Welders, especially those who have to work above their head, should wear a flame-proof skull cap under their hard hat to protect their hair and head.

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Noise is a hazard which is often overlooked, especially when welding in an enclosed or confined space. Noise levels, depending on the type of welding and the work area, can range between 90 and 120 decibels. Therefore, noise levels will exceed OSHA’ s action level of 85 dBA. To reduce noise levels, hearing protectors — such as plugs or muffs — should be provided and required to be worn by the welder, helper and anyone else exposed to the excessive noise level.

The arc welder and cutting torch produce flames and sparks capable of starting a fire or causing an explosion as seen in the YouTube video. The work area must be made fire-safe. All combustible and flammable materials must be removed from the work area, and if that is not possible, fire-resistant tarps, curtains or metal sheets must be used to cover or block flames and sparks from making contact with the combustible materials. A multipurpose chemical ABC fire extinguisher should always be nearby when welding. In some situations, a fire watch will have to be posted.

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When using gas cylinders, keep the cylinders far enough away from the welding and cutting operations to ensure that sparks, hot slag or flames cannot reach the cylinders. Never take oxygen and gas cylinders into a confined space and remove the welding hoses from the space when they are not in use. Cylinders containing welding gases should always be used and secured in an upright position. Using a welding cart with the cylinder secured to the cart is the safest way to handle cylinders. Unless you want a missile flying around, remove the gauges and cap the cylinders before transporting them.

There is a lot more to managing safe welding operations than the basic information included in this article, and employers and their assigned welders must learn the regulations and follow all the precautions. Make absolutely sure that welders, their helpers and their supervisors are aware of the hazards and the proper welding and cutting techniques. Never let workers who have not been properly trained use welding equipment or cutting torches. Training is required by OSHA and essential to safe welding and cutting operations. And never forget, even the simplest welding operation — like welding casters to the bottom of a barrel — could cause serious injuries or even kill a worker.

George Kennedy is NUCA Vice President of Safety.