Safety works its way into every aspect of the workplace, and rightly so, but in some duties and activities a need for safety and preventative measures is just plain obvious. As far as industrial tasks go, welding is certainly high up on the number of risks involved, though many are not as visually apparent. This blog post is an exploration of the risks, both obvious and more obscure, associated with welding.
More importantly than listing the risks themselves, however, is knowing your safety options and obligations. Adhering to OSHA, ANSI, and other guidelines isn’t always easy, especially when you have to wade through technical jargon to find the information you’re looking for. You can consider this your no-nonsense guide to learning welding safety for your workers.
Risk of Fire
One of the largest and most obvious risks when it comes to welding is that of fire. Even laymen know that welding involves a lot of sparking, and this can quickly lead to burns and fires in the right conditions – or rather, the wrong ones. The risks of fire and burning can be further categorized into specific dangers, each with its own safety regulations and prevention methods.
As sparks can fly several feet before cooling down and extinguishing, any flammable materials in the workplace cause a risk to your workers and property. A good way to ensure the integrity of your work environment is to start from the ground up.
Take a look at your floors first; wooden flooring, or plastic tile coverings that are susceptible to melting or catching fire are not suitable for welding environments. Next move upward to any cabinets or counter materials in the room. Again, woods should be avoided for obvious reasons. Continue this until you’ve reached the ceiling (unless a ceiling is high above where welding will be performed and not at risk for fire).
Of most concern during this evaluation is the surface the welding will directly be taking place on. A non heat conducting composite is best. In any case, there should never be prolonged contact between a welding torch flame and any material except the part being worked on.
Burns are the next big concern for any safety manager dealing with welding employees. Workers are in close proximity to showers of sparks and open flame, meaning burns can be severe and have long-lasting effects.
The only way to ensure total safety is through the use of proper personal protection equipment, or PPE. For physical shielding during welding, this means a mask to protect the face, along with flame-retardant overalls to cover clothing. Its also important to note that employees involved in welding processes should never wear loose clothing.
As well as a physical barrier for burning debris, gloves should be part of every worker’s PPE in order to give them extra grip; a welding torch that slips while in use can multiply the risk of fire and burns.
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All PPE needs to follow OSHA and ANSI guidelines in order to be deemed suitable for workplace use. Depending on the temperatures and materials involved in your specific welding projects, different classes of PPE will be required.
When welding it is important that workers always keep in mind “breathing zones.” Breathing zones are, simply put, the available space workers have for safe breathing while working. Sometimes a breathing zone is an entire well-ventilated room, while other times it is the small air pocket created by a respirator or mask. Breathing zones are vital to maintain as many materials common in welding can be extremely harmful to worker health:
“Many workers who are exposed to welding fumes suffer from Parkinson’s disease, a major disorder affecting movement and balance. They often develop “manganism,” a disease closely related to Parkinson’s, that also makes it difficult to walk and move properly. Both manganism and Parkinson’s disease cause tremors, shaking, and loss of muscle control. These conditions can become more severe as time passes”. – Brayton Purcell
Manganese, and other materials common in welding projects, is indeed a common cause of many health complications. In addition to Parkinson’s and similar diseases, respiratory infections and abrasions aren’t uncommon as well. For this reason, breathing barriers are needed.
Depending on the type of materials being welded, various levels of breathing PPE are required to maintain a safe breathing zone. The main breathing apparatus classifications are mechanical, in which a physical barrier filters harmful particles, and respirators, which are sometimes powered and provide fresh air altogether.
In addition to providing a physical shield to deflect sparks, eyewear worn while welding should be tinted to help reduce the levels of visible light entering the eye. The arc of light created at the point of contact while welding can seriously damage vision, but welders must keep focused on what they’re doing constantly, a conundrum that is only helped by masks and lenses with tinted protection.
There are other general considerations to think about when welding, which include things like cleaning up debris that could be flammable within range of any welding project or providing regular updates and refreshers to worker training.
For references and additional reading, refer to ANSI code Z49. This section provides specifics for safety regulations when working with welding, including additional specifications for the rooms and environments in which welding can occur. You can find guides for specific welding-related risks and conditions on OSHA’s website as well.