Newbie mistakes made, experience gained

September 29, 2009
By: Marty Rice

All welders are newbies at some time in their careers. Following Marty Rice's advice for newbies can help you with more than your welding career. Learn from the man who's been there, done that, and has the scars to prove it.

High rise welder

We all make mistakes. What's important is that we learn from them. However, some mistakes on a welding job can be disastrous and should be prevented at all costs. I speak from experience.

I had been a maintenance and fabrication welder at a shop and black iron plant for a few years, but I was a rookie in the Ironworkers union when I was sent out to a powerhouse. I was on a welding gang, and we were going through a lot of rod, constantly needing more, and I was elected to go get it. We welded every connection on that sucker, because a tornado had hit another powerhouse and literally twisted columns, popping inch-thick bolts like buttons on a cheap shirt.

A lot of the connections were really hard to get to and scary as hell to work on. We had baskets made out of round bar that weighed a good 60 or 70 lbs. that we'd hang on the outside of the building so we could climb down in to weld the hard-to-reach connections. Many times we had to push them quite a ways across this spooky 4-in. beam to the connection we were working on. It's scary enough walking a 4-in. beam 20 floors up wearing 35 lbs. of tools on your belt. Throw in a danged awkward basket to slide in front of you and the fear factor is big-time!

One day I looked over and saw a news crew on the unit next to us. That unit had been completed, and the crew was doing a story on the second unit we were building. I had to walk on the outside perimeter beam about 25 floors up with the wind blowing like crazy while carrying 50 ft. of welding lead on my shoulder. It was already a scary walk, but the wind blowing and me being off-balance with the lead on my shoulder made it worse. As I walked I put a determined, tough look on my face. That was my outward appearance. Inside was a shrill, little-girl voice begging God not to let me fall.

We would put the rod cans as close as we could to the work and then load the rod pouches on our tool belts, which allowed us to cross that scary abyss as few times as possible. Usually beams are on the floors underneath you, so you at least have a false sense of security that you might grab onto one if you fall. (I actually did one time on another job.)

There were grated walkways up to where we were working. It was a long way there and back, so I decided to carry two boxes instead of one. Fifty lbs. on each shoulder was heavy, but I wanted to show I was a hard worker. Grating is supposed to be bolted down, but some aholio left a section unbolted and it was overlapping about an inch high, kinda like a jigsaw puzzle piece not quite in its slot.

I was walking along when the toe of my nice new Redwing boot caught the grating and I went for a tumble. There was a 20-some-odd floor drop on both sides of the walkway, and I couldn't take a chance of dropping one of the boxes on the people working below. So instead of putting my hands out like you would in a "regular" fall, I basically used my knees and face to cushion the blow.

Do you think my brother ironworkers laughed when they saw my scratched-up face and bloody, torn jeans? Do you think I ever tried to be a he-man and carry two boxes again? Newbie mistake made, experienced gained.

Important Dos and Don'ts

Here are some Do's and Don'ts you might want to consider to help minimize mistakes, particularly if you are a newbie.

Build on Your FoundationDon't think you're a welder just because you've passed a certification test. That cozy little welding booth is a lot different than the shop or field. Howling wind; twisting like a contortionist; a foreman hollering you ain't fast enough; lousy fit-up; and dangerous, dirty, crazy conditions make a shop or field a little bit different than that booth.

That doesn't mean you can't go out and make a good hand; it just means you've got a lot to learn and a lot of burning to do before you really are a good welder. Don't get me wrong, it's outstanding that you've learned to pass the test. That's your foundation, and the foundation is as important as anything in your career as a welder. Now it's time to start building on it.

Show up on TimeDon't wait to find out where the job is on your first day. Drive over, see what it looks like, check the parking, and figure out how long it'll take to get there beforehand, if you can. Allow for traffic and weather and get there 15 minutes early! Be on time and show up every day. That's the reputation you want to earn, an "everyday" hand. That means if you have a little cold or the sniffles, or your little tummy hurts, you get your ass out of that bed and go to work anyway.

Project Confidence, Not CockinessDo act confident when you walk onto the job for the first time. The longer you work on a job in a shop or factory, or the more jobs you work in the field, the more confident you will be. The more you read, watch videos, research manuals, and search the Internet, the more confident you'll become. When I started I had nothing but technical manuals that pretty much made my head want to explode. Now you have all kinds of media to check out.

Don't let your confidence turn into cockiness, and don't ever do something you aren't qualified to do.

ListenDo keep your pie hole closed. If older, experienced hands are talking, keep your mouth shut and listen. Do not interject any of your lame-brain, nonexperienced foolishness into the conversation. If you think I sound gruff or rude here, then don't listen to me and see just how gruff and rude an old hand can be. Listen and learn, grasshopper; you'll have your own stories to tell someday.

Don't listen to the negative goof-offs, and don't let them influence you. They're the punks who want to sit around whining, complaining, and running down everything they can. They'll do anything to get out of work, or do a half-assed job, and as the saying goes, misery loves company. Instead, pick someone with character and a good work ethic to emulate and ask advice from.

Tough It OutDon't get discouraged because there is so much to learn. Just keep on learning, and when it gets rough, tough it out. Most of the time, it'll be worth it, because things get better.

Leave on Good TermsDon't burn your bridges when you quit; you may need to work there again someday.

Be Safe at All TimesDon't be unsafe! Never. A lot of bosses will take advantage of a newbie, because they know you don't know any better. That's why it's important to learn all you can about safety before you ever set foot in the shop or field. Those safety lessons may sound boring in class, but they might save you from getting maimed or killed, or worse in my book, maiming or killing someone else. I had two bad accidents in the field that put me in the hospital. Both were caused by the other guy not following safety procedures.

Save for a Rainy DayDon't blow money. I wish someone had told me that when I first started. I invested in Coors, Pabst, and Bud, along with a few taverns and I'm not talking stock options. If you're in the field and you get rained out, you don't get paid, hence you better adhere to the old saying "save for a rainy day!" My apprentice teacher, Jim Fenwick, God rest his soul, taught me to save 10 percent of every paycheck, and that advice came in handy more than once.

Do pay yourself first by maxing out your 401(k) and getting IRAs for yourself and your spouse if both of you work.

Don't get in debt. It‘s just stuff. Being in debt sucks and makes you a slave to "The Man." No debt equals freedom. Freedom rocks!

You're gonna make some mistakes. It's been 30 years since I was a newbie, and I still make 'em. But, and this is a big but, you can strive to make as few as possible. And in our trade that just might mean saving yourself or someone else from getting hurt or killed.

Marty Rice

Marty Rice

Contributing Writer
High School Career Center in Texas
Marty Rice is a welding instructor at a high school career center in Texas. He is an honorary member of the Ironworkers Local 263.


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