Best welding safety practices and equipment are universally applicable. Welding exposes everyone to similar hazards, whether you’re responsible for safety at a large, welding-intensive manufacturing company, a billion dollar engineering-construction firm or a small independent fabricator.
Here are 12 tips for improving welding safety in your company, including advice that also improves productivity.
Read the Book. A welder’s operating manual contains important safety information, as well as information procedures that maximize the machine’s potential. Make sure everyone who operates the machine is familiar with its contents. If the manual becomes lost or damaged, contact the manufacturer for a replacement. Many manufacturers provide manuals on-line. Neither this article, nor any other, should be used as a substitute for the manufacturer’s recommendations.
Button Up. Any exposed skin is susceptible to the painful and damaging effects of ultraviolet and infrared rays. Further, sparks catch in open pockets, pant cuffs or down a shirt that isn’t completely buttoned. They can smolder unnoticed while the welder is “under the hood.” Button shirt collars, cuffs and front pockets to prevent them from catching sparks and to cover exposed skin. Do not keep matches or butane lighters in your pockets. Avoid wearing cuffed pants, as the cuffs may catch sparks.
Wear the Proper Gear. Neither shorts nor short-sleeved shirts belong in a welding cell. Even a quick tack weld requires the proper safety gear, including helmet, gloves and clothing.
Wear only flame-resistant clothing, such as denim pants and a shirt made from tightly woven material or a welding jacket. The excuse that welding jackets are too heavy, hot, restricting or cumbersome is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Makers of safety gear now produce lightweight clothing from flame resistant cloth, pigskin leather and combinations of the two that offer better protection and increased ease of movement than ever before.
Gloves, too, have progressed beyond the one-size-fits-all type. They are now available with ergonomically curved fingers and with different designs for specific welding processes. Heavy-duty MIG/Stick gloves, medium-duty MIG gloves and TIG gloves that provide added dexterity and touch and are just some of the options available. Note that gloves are not sufficient to pick up just-welded material. Use pliers to avoid burns.
The Right Shoes. High-top leather shoes or boots provide the best foot protection. Pants legs should go over the shoes. Do not wear tennis or cloth shoes. The first warning you ignored this rule may be a burning sensation as your shoes smolder.
Breathe Freely. Fumes and smoke emitted during welding pose a health hazard. When welding in confined spaces, toxic fumes may accumulate, or shielding gasses may replace breathable air. Use an exhaust hood to remove fumes from the area and ensure enough clean breathing air is available. Some materials specifically require respirators when welding, so consult the manufacturers welding electrode’s data sheet, your welding engineer or after the exposure.
Don’t See the Light. It takes only a moment of exposure to a welding arc’s rays for unprotected eyes to experience “arc flash,” a painful condition that may not appear until hours later. Welding helmets should be fitted with a proper filter shade to protect the operator’s face and eyes when welding or watching. Note that approved safety glasses with side shields and ear protection should also be worn under the helmet. Install screens or barriers where appropriate to protect others from the arc.
Pick a lens shade appropriate for your welding application. OSHA offers a guide for choosing the correct lens based on welding criteria. If your weld parameters and materials don’t vary, a fixed-shade lens may be right for you.
Auto-Darkening Helmets. The sensors on an auto-darkening helmet darken the lens in a fraction of a second.
All auto-darkening helmets must meet ANSI standards, the most recent being ANSI Z87.1-2003.
Industrial grade helmets react at speeds of 1/10,000 to 1/20,000 of a second and have adjustable shades settings of #9 to #13 for welding. Industrial grade helmets also have adjustable sensitivity (useful for low amperage welding) and delay controls to adjust how long the lens stays dark after the arc stops.
Newer helmets have different modes, allowing the same helmet to be used for welding, cutting and grinding. The most recent development is a mode that senses the arc electromagnetically, offering full protection when the sensors are obstructed, as when pipe welding or welding out-of-position.
Avoid auto-darkening helmets that darken with a reaction time of 1/2,000 to 1/3,600 of a second. This is not adequate for industrial applications. Further, cold weather delays the reaction time on all auto-darkening helmets. Higher-end helmets are rated for use down to 14 degree F. However, low-end helmets with slower reaction times may not darken quickly enough in cold weather.
Avoid Repetitive Stress Injuries. Compared to a traditional fixed shade helmet, an auto-darkening helmet reduces neck fatigue because it is usually lighter and operators no longer need to snap their head to drop the hood down. Further, an auto-darkening helmet saves several seconds between welds, which quickly adds up to several minutes on larger components. Saving these minutes enables a company to more easily adhere to its build time.
To encourage operators to use an auto-darkening helmet (which cost $300 or more for a professional model), companies such as Vermeer Manufacturing Company (vermeer.com) split helmet costs 50-50 with the operator, and the operator owns the helmet outright after three years. The wide variety of graphic designs greatly adds to operator appeal, helping pull through the benefits of auto-darkening technology. To make the helmets easy to purchase, Vermeer’s welding supply partner maintains an on-site inventory.
Lose the Clutter. In its welding areas, Vermeer clearly labels and marks the place for each piece of equipment. There is a place for everything, and everything in its place. The weld area contains only the tools and equipment that operator uses; nothing more, nothing less. Rather than strictly using a fixed-height table, weld tables have a scissors mechanism that presents the work to the operator at the appropriate height.
Use Boom-Mounted Wire Feeders. Boom-mounted wire feeders add flexibility, efficiency and operator comfort to high-production welding stations. Booms place the wire feeder controls at the base of a 12- or 16-ft. boom and the drive assembly at the end of the boom.
The boom rotates 360 degrees and moves 60 degrees up and down to create a 24- or 32-ft. diameter work area. A counterbalance holds the boom in place once the operator sets its position.
Cameron Miller, safety manager at Brookville Equipment Corp. (brookvilleequipment.com), notes that, “Boom-mounted feeders are ideal for us. Our goal is to create the safest workplace for our employees, and that includes limiting trip hazards created by cable clutter on the floor and eliminating the lifting of feeders, which may be loaded with up to 120 lbs. of wire. We weld in a variety of positions, from on the floor to up on the locomotives, so we needed a versatile yet clean set-up. With boom-mounted feeders, not only can our welders perform their task, but they can maximize safety and productivity at the same time.” Overall, Brookville’s lost-time incidences are down 90 percent compared to a year ago, and the boom-mounted feeders play a role.
Optimize Fixturing. Use fixturing whenever possible. The simple gearbox rotates a 2,200-lb. component. It increases safety by eliminating the use of a chain and hoist to flip the component, which in turns eliminates the source of potential hazards.
Stick and Carrot Approaches. For successful implementation, don’t make welding safety a “program.” Employees tend to suspect programs, as programs tend to fade away after a brief flurry of initial activity. Instead, incorporate safety into daily work habits and incentivize compliance. Brookville uses the carrot approach to safety.
“We make safety a personal goal through rewards. For example, one of our employees is wearing a new Carhartt jacket as result of his safety contributions, and every one of our 165 employees knows the reason why he won that jacket.”
Other corporations use the stick approach. For example, employees who witness a safety violation and do not report it could be subject to the same consequences as the violator. Harsh? Yes, but it conveys a corporation’s safety conviction. Overall, most companies choose to blend stick and carrot approaches as part of their efforts.
When welding safety becomes an ingrained part of your corporate culture, you can expect reduced lost-time incidences and improved productivity.