June 27, 2002
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.
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.
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!"
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.
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.
I once saw a guy become one with his polyester clothing when it heated up and melted onto his skin.
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.
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.
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!
Always wear safety glasses and use the correct number lenses when cutting and welding.
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.
A safety inspector must tag it. You should always make sure equipment has been locked and tagged before you begin to weld.
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.