Safe Connections

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safeconnetionThere are numerous hazards associated with welding and cutting including burns, fires, explosions and toxic fumes, to name a few. Additionally, workers weld in awkward positions, in enclosed or confined spaces and under heat stress. These are only some of the many things to take into consideration when welding and cutting is performed, especially in an uncontrolled environment like a construction jobsite.

Managers and foremen should be well-informed about welding safety in order to prevent potentially deadly accidents. Safe welding and cutting operations start with knowledge, training and know-how. Managers should be able to recognize hazards, evaluate the risks and implement control measures to protect the welder, helper and other workers at the jobsite.A manager does not have to be a qualified welder to know the hazards and ensure that welding safety procedures are implemented.Training,experience,skill and established welding procedures are essential and necessary. Before any welding is performed, the task and work area should be assessedby someone knowledgeableabout welding and cutting operations, preferably the foreman or manager.

Welding and cutting is not a task that just anyone can perform. Different types of welding and cutting, such as oxygen acetylene or arc welding (Mig, Tig, Stick) require specialized knowledge. Only employees who have been trained (and preferably certified) should be permitted to use welding equipment.

In my opinion, having a little experience is an insufficient qualification. Safe welding requires more than a layman’s knowledge. Does the worker know, for example, what is the maximum safe regulator pressure based on the size of the tip for acetylene use? Or, why it is dangerous to apply heat directly to concrete? In arc welding, what filter shade number is required when Tigwelding? What are the hazards associated with arc welding in a trench? In all honesty, I am not sure myself. I know the generalities, but a trained welder knows the specifics.

Many of these answers can be found in reference books such as the Audel Welding Pocket Reference or HobartPocket Welding Guide. Very few self-trained welders even know these books exist, but they feature charts and other details to help welders protect themselves in common situations found on the job. There are also welder training programs, CDs, DVDs and other valuable resourcesavailable online. Take a look at them and you will see why I suggest using only well-informed, trained and/or certified welders to perform welding tasks.

Safety and Health Hazards

There is insufficient space to address the numerous hazards associated with welding and cutting. However, at the very least, jobsite managers and foremen should know the following before supervising operations that include these functions.

Ventilation

Welding and cutting can be associated with short- and long-term health hazards. During welding, cutting and brazing, exposure to fumes, gases and ionizing radiation can cause heavy- metal poisoning, lung cancer, metal fume fever, flash burns and other problems. The risks vary depending on the type of materials, welding surfaces, coatings, work area, personal protective equipment and ventilation.

Many of these hazards are unseen, such as metal fumes, and workers don’t recognize the danger. 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 for the many individual components of welding emissions.” It is vital to ensure that ventilation equipment is properly sized to the work. Again, there are reference materials available to help with this determination. The rule of thumb is to provide a ventilation system that can provide a minimum of 2,000 cu ft per minute of fresh air per welder when welding metals that are not considered hazardous.

Materials such as galvanized metal, welding rod fluxes, some cleaning and degreasing compounds, coatings or other materials containing fluorine compounds, zinc, lead, beryllium, cadmium and mercury are considered very hazardous. Welding and cutting materials that contain these substances,such as welding rods, require much higher volumes of fresh airand local ventilation to remove the fumes at the source and/or the use of air-supplied respirators. Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) or the new Safety Data Sheets (SDS) for both the materials to be cut or welded and the materials being used to cut or weld are good resources and should be referred to before the work begins.

Clothing and Gear

It is essential for welders and helpers to be properly clothed and protected because of the heat, ultraviolet radiation and sparks produced by welding and cutting operations. For body protection, both the welder and helper should wear a fire-retardant long-sleeved shirt and pants without cuffs or welder’s leathers to prevent burns. Clothing that burns or melts easily, such as synthetics and nylon and clothing with tears or worn spots can be ignited easily by sparks and should not be worn. Restricting welders from wearing jeans and t-shirts should be a no-brainer for managers and supervisors, but how many times have you observed this obvious hazard?

Hands and feet should also be protected. Welders should be provided with leather gauntlet gloves. To prevent sparks and slag from falling into the welder’s shoes, welders should wear high-top leather shoes or boots that will fit under the un-cuffed pants leg.

Proper eye protection is essential. The selection of suitable eye protection should be determined by the type of welding to be performed. A welding helmet with a filter plate is mandatory when arc welding to protect the welder’s eyes and face from ultraviolet rays. To prevent flash burns, the correct filter shade should be determined in advance based on the type of welding. The helper should also be required to wear the proper eye protectionand preferably a welder’s helmet if he or she must work close to the welder. Cracked or broken filters, glasses or goggles should not be used because they permit the UV to slip through the cracks. In addition, safety glasses that meet ANSI standards should also be worn under the welding helmet and by the helper to protect the worker when grinding or chipping isbeing done and the helmet face shield 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 operations and the workers.

Head protection is the subject of much confusion because many believe that you cannot wear head protection (a hard hat) when wearing a welder’s face shield. In fact, there are welder’s face shields designed to be worn with a hard hat and others with attached head protection. Hard hats are required at most construction jobsites and that includes welders. There are also flame-proof skull caps that can be worn under a welder’s hard hat to protect their hair and head from sparks.

Noise

Noise is another often overlooked hazard associated with welding and cutting. It often exceeds the action level of 85 dBA established by OSHA. Surveys have indicated it can sometimes exceed 100 dBA, especially when you factor in chipping and grinding. On most jobsites it may not be possible to use engineering controls. The reasonable solution is to provide welders with and require them to use hearing protectors.

Fire

Welding operations produce flames and sparks capable of starting a fire in the workspace. Therefore, it is important that the work area is made fire-safe. Require workers to remove combustible materials from the work area, if possible. If not, fire retardant tarps and/or curtains should be used to cover or block flames and sparks from making contact with the combustible materials. It goes without saying that gasoline and other flammable liquids must be removed. A fire extinguisher is necessary and should be readily available in all welding areas. In some situations, OSHA requires a fire watch to stand by. Check the regulations.

When using gas cylinders, keep the cylinders far enough away from the welding or cutting operation to ensure that sparks, hot slag or flames don’t get close to the cylinders. Cylinders containing welding gas should be transported and secured in a safe manner. Remove the regulators and cap the cylinders before transporting them. When in use, cylinders should always be standing upright and secured to prevent them from falling over. A broken valve can cause an oxygen cylinder to take off like a missile or cause an acetylene cylinder to explode. The release of flammable gas can cause an explosion. In addition, never take oxygen and fuel gas cylinders into a confined space, and be sure to remove the hoses and torches from the space when not in use.

There is more to managing safe welding operations than the basic information included here. Employers should ensure that they obtain necessary information and share it with jobsite managers and welders so they are knowledgeable about welding and cutting safety. Even the simplest welding tasks can result in a fatality or serious injury as a result of someone not knowing or following welding and cutting safety procedures. Make absolutely sure that workers and supervisors are aware of the hazards. Above all, never let inexperienced, unqualified workers use welding equipment.

For more information about this subject, visit the OSHA website http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/weldingcuttingbrazing/index.html or any of the welding equipment manufacturer’s websites on the Internet. Just Google “welding safety” and you will find more information than you can possibly use.

George Kennedy is vice president of safety for the National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA).

Safe Connections
Managing Welding and Cutting Operations
By George Kennedy

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