Taking another look at SMAW safety

June 27, 2002
By: Marty Rice

It's never a good time to forget about safety. Take it from a guy who knows.

Many people spend their whole lives trying to get rich, not realizing they were rich the whole time.

For instance, you are rich if you have your health. Those of you who have been badly hurt or live with pain every day know what I'm talking about. Health is a wonderful thing. The trouble is, it's easy to take health for granted and become complacent about it. Just this week President Bush addressed the importance of exercising for our health, pointing out that most of us don't do it.

Unfortunately, safety on the job often is taken for granted by employers and employees alike.

It is in the employer's best interest to provide a safe work place, because accidents cost millions of dollars each year in medical fees, lost production, litigation, and equipment damage.

It is in the employee's interest to work safely, because, frankly, getting hurt stinks. Worse than getting hurt is the possibility of leaving a spouse or child without a wife or husband or mom or dad.

I've been hurt. I've seen other people get hurt. I've even watched men die because safety practices were ignored. It's a shame to die early; it's even worse if the death could have been prevented.

Accidents: Feeling the Pain

Let's look at accidents themselves. What do they feel like? What happens afterward?

I once shattered my ankle after falling two stories. It felt like slow motion, just like in the cartoons, except I didn't stay in the air and wave goodbye before plunging down. As I hit the ground, I felt the bones in my left ankle snap, then give way. I could feel a sickening shift as the force of the sudden stop shoved my ankle up into my leg. Next I felt my back twist in a way it wasn't meant to. My brain was overwhelmed with all the pain signals.

That was just the beginning of it, though. I lay in a puddle of cold water for more than an hour, because they couldn't get an ambulance through the mud around the job site. It took another two hours to get to a hospital in my hometown and four more hours before I got into surgery. The pain was so bad I hyperventilated twice.

That was one long day.

After a week in the hospital, I went home. I had the whole week to worry about the bills, when I would be able to go back to work, and all the other little worries life presents. I ended up being off work for a year and have lived with constant pain ever since.

In addition, it took a couple of years for me to rebound financially. The thing is, I consider myself lucky compared to some of my buddies.

A lot of people say, "It won't happen to me," or "I can get by with it just this time." My accident, like many accidents, happened in a split second. That's all it takes to change your life forever.

Preventing Accidents

Let's bring this down to a more practical level and look at how to be safer with a common technology, shielded metal arc welding (SMAW).

Following is a SMAW safety test that every welder should take. I would advise all employers to obtain a copy of the American Welding Society's Safety in Welding, Cutting and Allied Processes. Make it available to your welders. Give incentives such as certificates and bonuses or perhaps some movie passes and free dining certificates for passing tests. You'd be surprised how much it means to a welder just to get a "good job" from the boss every now and then.

Why not create some incentives to work safely? I'm not talking about those boring, pitiful excuses for safety meetings I've had the displeasure of sitting through. Make the incentives interesting, something workers will pay attention to. As an ironworker in the field, I paid attention at meetings that showed pictures of blood and guts. They made me sit up, take notice, and say, "That could be me!"

Test Yourself

The following test covers the tip of the iceberg of SMAW safety.

Remember, safety is about common sense, education, and respecting equipment and processes — not gambling. If these seem easy, good;you are safety-conscious. If not, study up.

  1. Why should the top button on the welder's shirt be buttoned?
  2. Clothing worn during welding should be made of what?
  3. Which kind of light waves are the most harmful?
  4. What should you do for first-, second-, and third-degree burns?
  5. What are the two types of burns?
  6. Why do you need proper ventilation when welding?
  7. Why is it important neverto weld or cut on used containers?
  8. Why should you report all injuries, even if they are slight?
  9. Why should professionals check eye injuries?
  10. What should be done when equipment malfunctions?
  11. What is meant by lockout and tagout?
  12. Why should there neverbe horseplay in the shop or field?
  13. How do you avoid electrical shock when welding?
  14. What is the best preventive measure in safety?
  15. Why should you never shift a machine under load?


  1. Keeping your shirt buttoned prevents throat burns. UV rays can burn the skin. Skin cancer is one of the most pervasive cancers in America. Burning your throat over and over is inviting the possibility of cancer later on.
  2. While I was welding overhead one time, molten slag went down my shirt when I didn't have my throat protected. It burned like heck; so I sucked in my chest. It rolled onto my stomach and burned like heck; so I sucked in my gut. It then rolled elsewhere, causing a great deal of pain while teaching me a new dance step on a 2-inch-wide beam 20 floors up.

  3. You should always wear cotton or wool clothing for welding jobs. Wool usually is too hot, except in winter.
  4. I once saw a guy become one with his polyester clothing when it heated up and melted onto his skin.

  5. Ultraviolet light waves are the most harmful. It's as if you have a little sun at the end of your electrode that emits radiation that will sunburn your skin and can even blister your corneas.
  6. Flash burn doesn't hit until that night, causing what some have described as the sensation of rubbing sand into the eyes. A trip to the emergency room will run a few hundred bucks.

    Make sure your hood doesn't have any leaks. Even a pinhole can let in enough light to burn your eyes.

  7. For first- and second-degree burns, apply cool water. For third-degree, call 911 and treat for shock.
  8. Light and contact. Light burns are caused by UV or infrared light. Contact burns are caused by touching something that burns the heck out of you!
  9. The vaporization of flux and metal forms a haze that should not be breathed. The welder should always stay out of the welding plume. If not outside, then forced ventilation must be used at the point of welding.
  10. Galvanized steel can make a welder sick from breathing the zinc. Some metals, such as beryllium, can cause deadly illness even with minimum exposure. You always should know what you are working with.

  11. There are three reasons you should never weld on used containers. They are:
    1. Explosive. They can blow you to kingdom come! I read a couple of years ago about a welder who cut into a tank. It blew. They found pieces of him a block away. The sad part was that he had been doing tanks for 20 years and had always made sure they were safety-certified. The one time he was in a hurry cost him and his wife their lives.
    2. Flammable. You can be burned severely by flames shooting out of the tank from residual fumes.
    3. Toxic. You can be poisoned or asphyxiated if toxic chemicals have been stored in the tank. This can happen even in a tank that seems empty, because the toxins can be absorbed into the pores of the steel.
  12. Even slight injuries should be reported to your foreman so that he or she can make a record in case you need further treatment. Many times a slight injury turns out to be worse than first thought.
  13. An ironworker I worked with told me that he once heard a pop in his leg when he stepped off of a scaffold. That night, in the shower, the washcloth he was using kept catching on something. He looked down to see a piece of bone protruding out of his skin!

  14. Eye injuries are common in welding because of the sparks, chipped slag, grinding rooster tails, and dust particles. It is very important that all eye injuries be checked; if something is in the eye, it may cut or scratch the surface or cause an infection.
  15. Always wear safety glasses and use the correct number lenses when cutting and welding.

  16. When equipment malfunctions, tell your foreman.
  17. This is one time that it is fine to pass the buck. Let the foreman or owner handle the repair jobs. Allow only a qualified electrician to work on machines. Many power sources can store up enough electricity to electrocute you, even when they are unplugged.

  18. Lockout and tagout mean the equipment you are working on has had the power shut off and has been locked to prevent anyone from accidentally turning it on.
  19. A safety inspector must tag it. You should always make sure equipment has been locked and tagged before you begin to weld.

  20. It's easy enough to get hurt from equipment failure or carelessness. There's always a wisenheimer on the job. I like jacking around before or after work or on breaks as much as the next guy, but there is no place for it while working.
  21. You prevent shocks by not becoming a conductor of electricity. Make sure your connections are tight, wear gloves and work boots, and stay dry.
  22. The best preventive measure in safety is common sense!
  23. Shifting a machine under load can cause arcing, which can burn the contacts as well as the person changing the setting.

I hope these tips have helped. As I said, this covers a small portion of the total safety picture. Make sure you and your co-workers learn everything you can about safety. Take it from someone who wishes he could have a certain split second back to do over again.

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.


Questions for the author can be e-mailed to vickib@thefabricator.com