It would stand to reason that a device that produces an intense flame or concentrated electric arc would be inherently dangerous. But welding and cutting equipment has become so familiar on many of today’s worksites that it’s easy to lose sight of the potential hazards.
Safety professionals know that few things are more dangerous than complacency. When workers stop thinking actively about safety and safe operations, they become more likely to cut corners or make simple mistakes. That’s why it’s so important to reinforce the facts and procedures associated with the safe operation of welding equipment, cutting torches, and related tools.
Welders and those who use torches face a variety of work-related hazards, particularly injuries caused by flying particles, burns from hot metal, and exposure to vapors, fumes, chemicals, and ultraviolet radiation.
While the dangers of flying particles and burns are fairly self-explanatory, the other hazards aren’t as widely understood. Depending upon the type of welding and cutting, and upon the properties of the materials that are being worked upon (and any finishes or treatments used on those materials), welders and those using torches may be exposed to a variety of vapors, fumes, and chemicals that may range from merely irritating to deadly. Those workers need to be familiar with potential hazards, and should refer to Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for information and guidance.
In addition, ultraviolet radiation can be extremely harmful to the eyes. Even a few seconds of exposure to a very bright light source, such as a welder’s arc, can cause the painful condition known as photokeratitis. Longer-term exposures have been said to cause cataracts.
The first step of welding and cutting safety is to try to use engineering to minimize the hazards. For example, if it’s possible to move the welding or cutting task to another location where other workers won’t be impacted or where equipment won’t complicate the process, moving it will be the safest choice.
If the task can’t be moved, steps must be taken to ensure that other workers who are in or enter the area where work is being performed will not be placed at risk. Typically, screens, shields, or curtains can be used to keep the light, sparks, and particles away from other workers, while fume hoods will vent any dangerous gases. Signs should also be used to alert other workers and worksite visitors to the presence of the hazards.
Personal protective equipment
Given the potential for injury and limited opportunities to engineer hazards out of the actual tasks to be performed, it’s extremely important that workers become familiar with and use the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).
Helmets, skullcaps, safety glasses with side shields, goggles, and face shields can provide protection, but each must be matched to the hazards associated with the specific task and materials being used. For example, if the work is being performed in close proximity to live electrical lines, the worker should use PPE constructed from nonconductive materials. Helmet lenses need to be dark enough to provide adequate protection for the brightness associated with the particular type of weld, while allowing the welder sufficient vision to work.
Comfort and maintenance of PPE are important, too. Safety glasses or goggles that aren’t comfortable and secure may not provide the right amount of protection or may distract the worker’s attention from the task. Lenses that are pitted or cracked may break at an inopportune time, so they should be replaced immediately.
Workers should also be familiar with basic first aid procedures, especially those for eye injuries. Following the right treatment minimizes the chances that the injury will have more serious complications. Workers should know when to perform first aid themselves and recognize when emergency care should be performed only by medical professionals.
Fire prevention steps
The presence of flames and high temperatures makes fire an obvious hazard associated with welding and torch cutting. That’s why fire extinguishers and other fire protection equipment should always be close at hand.
Because these tasks rarely take place in ideal circumstances, additional precautions should be made based upon the specifics of the situation. If highly flammable materials are nearby, it’s a good idea to station one or more employees to watch for the possibility that those materials might ignite. A welder who is concentrating on his work may not notice that a stray spark or hot piece of debris has started a small fire. If the worker is welding something on or cutting into one side of a wall or other enclosure, another worker should be stationed on the other side as a preventive measure.
Once again, the worker needs to be aware of the hazards associated with the materials being handled, and of any coating on those materials. Some coatings or other treatments may be highly flammable (or toxic) and should be properly removed from workpieces before welding or cutting begins.
Finally, workers should avoid keeping the supply of flammable gases in the same enclosed spaces where they are cutting or welding. Keeping the supply and shutoff valve outside the enclosed space will reduce the possibility that the source might ignite or worsen an accidental fire in the space.
Handle gases correctly, too
In addition to operating welding and cutting equipment safely, it’s just as important to be familiar with proper steps for handling and using cylinders of compressed gas. When moving or storing gas cylinders, regulators should be removed, and valve protection caps should be securely fitted in place (and should never be used as handles for lifting or moving the cylinders).
Individual cylinders should be moved by tilting them and rolling them on their edges. When transported in a vehicle of any kind, they need to remain vertical. Storage locations should be dry, with plenty of ventilation. Oxygen cylinders need to be kept away from combustible materials and cylinders containing fuel gases.
Finally, while cylinders are being used, a safety device such as a chain or cylinder device should ensure that they cannot fall over.
Additional safety for torches
Before a worker ignites a torch, it’s important to inspect the hoses and all connections to ensure that there aren’t any leaks or loose fittings. Once those checks have been made, open the oxygen valve, ensure that all of the air has been discharged, and then close the valve. Only after those steps have been completed should the worker open the fuel valve, allow any excess air to be discharged, and then light the fuel with a friction lighter. After the fuel has been ignited, the oxygen valve can be opened and adjusted. The flame itself should be adjusted at the torch valve instead of the regulator.
Most torches have arrestors to prevent the flame from burning back into the torch or tip, which is known as a “flashback.” Should that occur, the workers should immediately close the oxygen valve, and then shut off the fuel valve. After the torch cools off, it can be examined and repaired. Finally, never set a torch down — even for a few moments — unless the oxygen and gases have been shut off.
Arc welding and cutting safety
The nature of arc welding and cutting creates additional safety hazards, primarily due to the intensity of the electric current used to perform the work. Workers should use only electrode holders that are rated for the maximum current of the electrodes, and that have been designed for the task to be performed. Any holder parts that might carry current must be fully insulated.
Cables must be insulated and flexible, and in addition to handling the maximum current, must be durable enough to withstand the duty cycle. If there are any flaws in the cable, it should be replaced or repaired and tested before being used. Generally speaking, cables should not have any repairs or splices within 10 feet of the electrode holder, unless the splices have been performed with the correct insulation.
Ground returns must also have enough capacity to support the maximum current, especially if a single ground return is being used by more than one worker. Electrical conduits and pipes that carry gases or other flammable materials should never be used as ground returns.
Most of all: never stop learning
Training should be a constant process for welders and those who work with cutting torches. An ongoing safety program reduces the chances of workers becoming complacent and ensures that those workers always have the most up-to-date information as new techniques and technologies are developed.
Just as important, a regular safety training program is an equalizer. One worksite may have many welders, each of whom learned his or her trade in a different setting, and each of whom may have a different degree of competence. A training program will ensure that everyone on a site develops the same level of knowledge and applies the same safety and operating procedures consistently.