Weld Safely - and Smartly

May 7, 2008
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Well-trained arc welders know that personal protective equipment (PPE) is necessary to prevent injury. But what about the dangers and risks other workers face from nearby welding hazards?

Like secondhand smoke, welding creates "secondhand" hazards for those nearby. Managers of smart and safe welding sites protect both welders and surrounding workers from these hazards by identifying safety "soft spots." By doing so, these managers improve worksite safety and avoid costly accidents and injuries.

Protecting welders

People generally avoid hazardous electric arcs and currents altogether, but in electric arc welding, these elements are a necessity. Therefore, hazards need to be recognized and respected. Welders must use the proper equipment, techniques and protections to ensure personal and worksite safety.

Electric arc radiation emits both ultraviolet and infrared rays, burning the eyes and skin just as strong, direct sunlight does. Even brief, unprotected exposure to arc rays will cause eye and skin burns that don't manifest until seven or eight hours later. Prolonged exposure causes more severe and immediate burns.

Flash burns result from high temperatures from the welding equipment's electric arc occurring near the body. Skin damage from flash burns should be considered critical and treated immediately.

Welders should cover exposed skin with flame-retardant clothing to minimize the effects of arc ray exposure and prevent injury from spatters and flashes. Gloves, aprons, sleeves, jackets and coveralls are among the combinations used to protect welders. This protective clothing complements welding helmets equipped with the proper filter lens, in either a passive or an autodarkening style to shield against the arc's bright light.

Welders' eyes are the softest of the welding safety soft spots, and require the right protection. One big misconception is that a welding helmet alone offers enough eye and face protection from welding hazards. As soon as welders flip up their helmets, their eyes are completely vulnerable, unless they wear safety glasses with side-shields or goggles underneath the helmet. ANSI Z87.1 lists welding helmets as secondary eye protection that must be used with the primary protection provided by safety glasses or goggles. Welding helmets protect the face from flying particles and sparks, and the eyes from arc rays. Safety glasses protect the eyes from flying particles and fragments. Think of welding helmets as the airbags in your car, and glasses or goggles as the seat belts. They are most effective when used in combination.

If the eyes are the softest safety spot, the ears are the most forgotten. Earplugs prevent hearing damage from loud noise caused by welding equipment, while earmuffs have the added benefit of shielding ears from sparks and spatter.

Creating safe spaces

Good housekeeping and organization are crucial for safe welding sites. A major component involves eliminating tripping hazards. Welding cables or hoses along the floor, or worse, draped over equipment, are preventable dangers for both welders and those passing through. Remember to keep equipment, tools and ladders away from aisles, walkways and doors.

Clearly mark off the welding site itself to keep people who do not need to be there from getting too close. The entire area should be well lit, so the welder and any helper or other workers in the area have a clear view of potential obstacles or hazards. All employees should know the location of first-aid and emergency burn kits. Be sure these kits are well stocked in the event of a mishap.

Welding performed outside a dedicated welding area needs special "hot work" procedures that go beyond regular in-house precautions. Screens, blankets or guards specifically designed to shield against heat, sparks and spatter should protect equipment or combustible material that cannot be moved that is within 35 feet of a welding zone.

Welding screens and barriers are a good first line of defense to protect surrounding helpers, workers, bystanders and plant visitors from arc rays, sparks and spatter. They maintain proper ventilation for the welder when used correctly, and can be used almost anywhere. In addition, screens protect surrounding workers from flying debris. If the welding station cannot be shielded, anyone within 75 feet should wear appropriate eye protection when welding or cutting is underway to guard against arc flash and flying debris.

Assessing airborne hazards

Smoke and fumes emitted by the welding process make up another portion of the welding safety equation. Improperly managed fumes and gases can travel much farther than sparks or spatter, exposing a wider range of workers and passers-by.

Assessing the dangers from welding fume exposure is tricky, since the metals being welded, the composition of the filler metals, and the makeup of any paint or surface coatings are all variables to consider. Each of these elements can vaporize into fumes during welding. Particulates and dust from grinding or cutting can also contribute to airborne hazards.

Assess airborne hazards and implement necessary engineering controls to maintain acceptable exposure levels. Air samples can determine appropriate respiratory protections. Employers must provide adequate ventilation through general ventilating systems for all welding sites to prevent employee exposure to toxic fumes, gases and dusts above maximum allowable concentrations.

When area ventilation does not properly manage respiratory hazards, utilize local solutions, such as fans or self-contained portable fume extractors with filtration capability. Extractors can be moved right to the welding area and capture fumes near the source. Some welding guns even come with built-in fume extraction. Work in a confined space should only be done with proper ventilation or while wearing an air-supplied respirator. Even with other ventilation systems, using a welding respirator is encouraged for additional protection.

Out of sight is not out of mind when managing airborne hazards. Misused ventilation systems can spread the risk of exposure to remote areas far away from the welding site. Be sure to maintain ventilation systems, so they reduce workers' exposure to fumes and smoke, instead of just moving hazards from one station to another.

Lapses in safety judgment can happen on any welding site. Both new welders who don't know any better and seasoned veterans who take their safety for granted can slip-up. Mistakes happen to in-shop welders, professional welders and occasional on-site welders alike. Regular assessments of safety "soft spots" can help protect the entire workforce from firsthand and secondhand welding dangers and avoid a perilous slide into complacency.

Sidebar: Assign "firewatchers"

Assigning "firewatchers" to non-dedicated welding sites helps create a safe welding space. This is especially helpful when using welding contractors, who may be unfamiliar with the work area, surrounding hazards and nearby combustible or flammable materials.

Firewatchers should be on the lookout for fires resulting from the welding operation, especially in areas not readily observed by the welder. Assigned workers should have fire extinguishers available and be trained in their use. Contractors should know who will be in their surrounding area, and understand that worker protection is crucial to worksite safety.

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