Welding in extreme temperatures
November 7, 2002
The weather affects welders no matter what climate they live in, and even more so out in the field. The key is to learn how to cope with extreme temperatures.
Where I grew up in Amarillo, Texas, the wind blows 364 days a year. There is a joke that in the winter, the only thing between Amarillo and the North Pole is a barbed-wire fence. It's not uncommon for the wind chill to reach 40 to 50 degrees F below zero and for blizzards to deposit snow up to the rooftops.
Here in Dallas, where I now live, the grocery store shelves are emptied if we get an inch of snow. But sometimes we have ice storms that cover the road with several inches of ice. I've been off the job as long as a week after such a storm.
In the summer the temperature can reach 110 degrees F, with humidity so high you feel like you're in a steam bath.
The weather affects welders no matter what climate they live in, and even more so out in the field. You will produce a much better weld if you are comfortable temperaturewise. If you are lucky enough to be working in a climate-controlled shop, you don't have to worry, except maybe when you are going to and from work. However, the shops I have worked in were ice-cold in the winter and boiling-hot in the summer!
In the summer I've welded with sweat dripping into my eyes and the rods shocking the heck out of my sweat-soaked hands. In the winter I've welded high up in the air with the wind blowing down my back, my fingers and toes aching, and the stinger shaking all over the place because of my shivering. I've been half-frozen all day long in a plant because every dang door in the place was open, letting in blasts of cold air.
I've heard people say they would rather be cold than hot because they can always put on more clothing to get warm. That, my friend, is a bunch of BUNK! They usually say that on a real hot day, or they have never spent a prolonged time in the cold.
After growing up in Amarillo, I did a hitch in the Army on the East German border. It was so cold we had to put cigarette lighters under our mouths to thaw out our words! I've been so cold on guard duty that I literally thought I was going to lose my mind. Being that cold is bad news, and although being hot as heck is pretty bad, I'll take it anytime over the cold.
So I told myself I would never be cold again after the Army. Then what did I do? I got into welding and promptly froze my tail in heatless shops and on blustery cold dams, powerhouses, and high rises. I finally learned that you have to cope with whatever situation you find yourself in with a positive attitude. If you're in a bad situation, you just have to do what you can to make it better. But don't let me sound too bright and cheery -- I've been known to gripe a little when I'm cold.
In the shop or field, the heat or cold usually doesn't affect welding on high-strength mild or tempered construction steel that much. I was surprised when I learned that we usually do not need to preheat or postheat columns and beams in the cold.
Most of the time it is impractical to preheat steel for structural jobs because you are crawling all over the place in all kinds of awkward positions. The reason we don't need to preheat is that the weather usually is mild enough and because we usually work on thick steel with a small heat-affected zone (HAZ). (The heat-affected zone is the area where the microstructure of the base metal is altered because of the heat from the weld.) Because of the small HAZ, the steel crystalline structure is not affected, or the rapid cooling rate produces a microstructure of adequate strength.
In general, heat-treated mild steels are arc welded without pre-heat. However, a preheat should be used when the metal temperature is below about 50 degrees F (10 degrees C), and a preheat of about 100 degrees F (38 degrees C) or higher should be used if the plate thickness is over 1 in. (25.4 mm) or if the joint is highly restrained.1
However, many applications require pre- and postheating. I actually heard about welders having to preheat huge steel trusses to 200 degrees right in the middle of summer on a job here in Dallas. It was about 110 degrees at the time, and most of the ironworkers were "dragging up" (getting their tools and getting the heck out of there) as soon as they got their first paycheck.
Everyone has a certain temperature at which they are comfortable. I really love it in the 60s and 70s. We have this part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which senses our blood temperature. If the temperature is too high or low, the hypothalamus sends signals that cause us to sweat or shiver respectively. Sweat evaporates and cools down the body, while shivering creates energy that helps heat the body.
Being cold is painful! When a welder is miserable from the cold, it is hard for him or her to concentrate on the welding. There are steps that can be taken to combat the effects of bone-chilling temperatures.
Make your employees as comfortable as you can. I'm not saying you have to build them a fireplace and serve them hot cocoa, but creating a comfortable environment doesn't take that much money or effort. Helping your workers feel more comfortable is a way of showing you care about them, and that's good for morale. A worker who feels appreciated and comfortable will be a better producer.
You can purchase a butane heater for the shop that will heat a good-size area for around $80.00.
In the field it is a bit more difficult because welders usually are at different locations, for different amounts of time. You still can provide heaters at various areas where the welders can warm up every now and then. And again, the workers will be more productive, if they feel comfortable and appreciated.
Just like you need the right tools for the job, you also need the right clothes for the job. I remember an apprentice who showed up for work on a dam wearing tennis shoes. After everyone on the job site finished laughing their heads off, the general foreman sent him home to get boots. Home was 110 miles away, so the apprentice learned a hard lesson that day.
I learned a hard lesson one morning on a job outside of Amarillo. It had been in the 70s most of October. We had gotten used to it and were working in our short sleeves when a blue norther blasted in. We could see it coming two hours before it hit -- the sky turned dark blue, and huge winter snow clouds rolled in. In less than an hour the temperature dropped from the high 70s to the low 30s. None of us wanted to go home because it was Friday, and we didn't want to lose our "ringer" (a 40-hour paycheck). We wrapped up in rain gear and anything else we could get our hands on, and suffered through that long, cold afternoon. Since that day I've kept a coat in my truck year 'round!
Popular-brand construction jackets and long underwear usually are enough to ward off the cold. Some welders prefer overalls or coveralls, but they make me feel hot and sweaty, and then shivering cold when I remove them. Plus, I can barely move with all that stuff on, and lack of mobility is not good when you're working up high. I have found that insulated vests and the hardhat liners that cover your ears really help. Wool socks also help, but I swear, I never have found a way to keep my fingers and toes warm.
The cold can be dangerous in many ways. Frostbite can occur, your vision can get blurred from the cold wind, and you can lose your grip on tools. Sever cold can even affect your judgment. But the right clothing and a thermos of coffee will go a long way toward making you more comfortable.
Those of you in the South are saying, "Yeah, right, the only time I'm cold is when the air conditioner is set too low; what about the heat?"
Although the cold affects me more, I know 100-plus-degree days can be miserable both in the shop and field. An ironworker I knew passed out and fell eight floors to his death because of heat stroke.
Heat stroke occurs when the body overheats and the brain swells. In hot weather, it is imperative that you drink plenty of fluids, preferably water. Supervisors, provide a big ol' jug of a thirst quencher on the job site. And welders, make sure you stay hydrated. And I don't mean at the local "watering hole" either!