Keeping all workers safe
October 12, 2004
Although a fully clad welder can appear somewhat overdressed, each piece of protective clothing is necessary to ensure personal safety. Welders who shun safety equipment often have scars or health problems as reminders of shortcuts they took.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and several industry trade groups have published information focused on welders' safety. An equally important issue is the safety of nonwelders who work near or pass through welding areas.
Unfortunately, nonwelders are sometimes at a higher risk for accidents and injuries than welders because they are not fully aware of many welding hazards and don't take the necessary safety precautions. Helping them become aware of common hazards can help reduce accident rates and help keep everyone safer.
Sparks and chips from welding processes can travel quite a distance and can stay hot long after they come to rest. In addition to presenting a fire hazard, sparks and chips constitute a hazard to anyone walking by. Cuffs on shirts or slacks, ruffles on a blouse, and open pockets on a coat or sweater can catch a hot spark or chip.
Non-safety-rated shoes and sandals commonly worn in offices can be another hazard for hot sparks and chips that reach a walkway. The hot particles can easily burn through a thin sole or can cause a burn if they land on the unprotected foot of a person wearing open-toed shoes.
Teach everyone to be aware of burn hazards and to make good clothing choices if they pass through or work near welding areas. If walkways near welding operations are common areas where many office workers pass to reach other areas, consider instituting a formal dress or shoe policy to help ensure safety in this area. Alternative routes that minimize traffic in these areas also can be helpful.
Burns from touching newly welded parts are also all too common. Train welders to mark the items with the word hot or with the time the item was welded as a reminder to others not to touch the piece. In addition, train others to stay out of welding areas. If this isn't practical, train them to assume that everything in the area is hot, and discuss personal protection items that are available to protect them from burn hazards.
Closely related to physical burns is the fire hazard welding presents. An arc welder is capable of producing temperatures in excess of 10,000 degrees F. Metal parts can stay hot for an hour or more. Sparks can ignite dust—especially in poorly ventilated areas.
Welders and trained fire watchers know about these hazards. They should also know how to inspect their work area before and after welding. They understand why someone needs to stay 30 minutes after the last weld is finished to help ensure that an errant spark hasn't turned into a fire.
Most welders are also well-versed in using fire extinguishers and sand to extinguish small fires before they get out of control. Train everyone to use fire extinguishers, especially if welding is not performed in a specified area each day. Make sure that fire alarm pull stations are highly visible and that everyone is aware of their locations.
Compressed-gas cylinders, which are necessary for some welding processes, present their own set of hazards. Proper storage of each cylinder is essential for safety–but because cylinders need to be stored away from heat and sunlight, a welding booth usually isn't a good storage location.
Many times welders transport cylinders to and from a welding area, but in some cases, maintenance workers perform this function before and after work hours.
Train welders and anyone else who might handle cylinders to follow safe procedures when handling and using compressed gases. Make sure that everyone knows to cap all cylinders when they are not in use to protect cylinder valves. Teach welders to release pressure from regulators and hose lines before leaving for the night, and before a cylinder is moved for any reason.
Ensure that adequate space is allowed for cylinder storage, and that storage areas are clearly marked. Oxygen and acetylene cylinders, for example, need to be separated, and all cylinders should be stored in a fire-resistant area that is at least 20 feet away from flammable materials.
Welders' face shields are fitted with shaded lenses that help protect their eyes from ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which prevents arc eye or welder's flash. Unfortunately, many nonwelders don't know the arc's bright light can sunburn their eyes in just a few seconds. In fact, many of the welding-related eye injuries each year are to bystanders who were watching someone weld.
Of the people who do know not to look directly at a welding arc, many don't realize that you don't have to be looking directly at the arc to get burned. UV light travels in all directions. If the arc is visible at all, the UV rays can be harmful. Glasses with side shields can help prevent arc eye injuries as well as injuries from sparks and chips that can get behind standard glasses.
Establishing a perimeter 20 ft. around welding booths and requiring appropriately shaded eye protection for anyone entering welding areas can help prevent nonwelders from getting arc eye and other eye injuries.
Painting welding booths with dark, dull finishes that do not reflect UV light also can help prevent UV-related injuries in areas near welding booths. Beware of untreated surfaces. Sufficient light can reflect from walls and other surfaces to cause eye injuries in other areas.
Welding smoke is a mixture of very fine particles (fumes) and gases that can be extremely toxic. Because the amount and type of fumes and gases generated depend on the welding process and the base materials used, no single type of ventilation system or respirator is effective for every situation.
One effective method for venting established welding areas is to use local exhaust systems rather than general ventilation. Local exhaust systems remove fumes at the source instead of letting them dissipate into other areas. When welding is performed in a specific area, proper venting is often easy to accommodate.
If welding is not performed in a common area, this hazard may need to be addressed before each operation. For proper safety, it may be necessary to cease work in an area during welding operations and then allow ample time for harmful fumes and gases to vent before re-entering the area.
Typically, it is not necessary for workers to be fitted with respirators if they are merely passing by a welding area. Proper air monitoring can help determine the contaminants present and the extent to which ventilation and filters are needed. Heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) experts also can help gauge the need for specialized equipment.
Training workers to be aware of airborne hazards can help minimize episodes of metal fume fever and other, more serious health hazards.
Some processes, such as plasma arc welding, cutting, chipping, and grinding, generate noise at harmful levels, possibly necessitating some form of hearing protection.
OSHA requires facilities to monitor workplace noise levels. When they exceed established limits, employers must do what they can to reduce these levels before requiring earplugs. Installing acoustical shields around welding areas is sometimes all that is necessary to reduce ambient noise to acceptable levels.
If earplugs are still necessary, train everyone to insert them properly, and post signs to designate areas where hearing protection is required.
Although nonwelders are not constantly exposed to welding hazards, it still makes sense to make them aware of welding processes and associated hazards so that they can better understand the need for personal protective equipment or other established procedures in and around welding areas.
Simply posting signs around welding areas often is not enough to help prevent injuries. When nonwelders truly understand the hazards, they are more likely to accept the need for protective equipment and specialized procedures that may not apply in other areas of a facility.
Taking the time to train everyone can help lower injury rates and help raise awareness of hazards. For example, with proper training, a secretary will know how to look for sparks and use a fire extinguisher to prevent a fire. Forklift drivers will know why they shouldn't stock excess freight in the aisle outside the welding booths. These little efforts help ensure everyone's continued safety.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 200 Constitution Ave. N.W., Washington, DC 20210, 800-321-6742, www.osha.gov