The most important welding lesson

July 12, 2005
By: Marty Rice

Relating personal experiences, welding professional and instructor Marty Rice discusses welding hazards and stresses the importance of learning and following all welding safety practices.

Whether you're a professional welder with extensive training, a self-taught welding hobbyist, or a welder in-between, you must learn and heed all welding safety precautions. If you don't, you're setting yourself up for a world of hurt, or worse.

To illustrate my article topics, I sometimes like to relate something crazy, dumb, or unfortunate that has happened to me. Believe me, plenty of events in my lifetime have fallen under all three categories! Because this article focuses on safety, I thought I'd relate a story showing how easy it is for something unexpected to happen. In the welding trade, the unexpected can happen in a split second.

A World of Hurt

OK, I was 15 years old with a driver's permit that allowed me to drive with an adult in the car. My family was in the mountains of Red River, New Mexico, and we'd walked way up a mountain trail. The walk up was tiring, but we were rewarded with a breathtaking view that literally resembled a painting—valley below, mountains on all sides, fields, and a river flowing from the snow on the mountaintop. (Except in a painting the water wouldn't have been flowing.)

This was all great, but none of us were looking forward to the trip back down the mountain. My dad threw me the car keys and told me I could drive back up to pick up the rest of my family by myself. I caught those keys and ran like a sprinter to get out of earshot before he changed his mind. I was running by a cabin in the valley about half a mile from the car, when all at once, my shoes were at the same level as my eyes.

I had run full force into someone's metal wire clothesline! It literally stopped me in my tracks, set me parallel in the air, and then dropped me on the ground. Not only did hitting the wire choke the heck out of my neck, but I had the wind knocked out of me when I hit the ground, and I had entered the proverbial world of hurt.

I remember hearing ...

Dad: "Son, are you able to talk?"

Mom: "OH MY GOD!"

My 11-year-old brother: "Hey, Marty, you got them keys?"

In my youth I had learned the hard way how you can be happy one second and hurting the next.

Learning and Relearning

The unexpected can happen in the welding trade very easily. Although welding can be a safe trade when common sense and good safety practices are used, it can be very dangerous when they are ignored.

I remember having to watch a film about accidents before beginning a big construction job. The entire crew watched the film during a full day of safety briefings. That film made me want to quit the construction business right then and there. It showed just about every way possible to get hurt, and it hit home with me because I had been hurt badly twice before. However, the film was a good reminder of the potential hazards and how to avoid them.

Sometimes when I think about all the things that can go wrong in my high school welding classes, I feel like staying home and not getting out of bed—just to be on the safe side. However, even staying in bed ain't necessarily safe. I just read in the July issue of Popular Mechanicsthat about 400 people either smother or accidentally strangle themselves to death every year in their own dang beds!

I'm not writing this to make you want to quit welding or sleeping. I simply want you to remember alwaysto practice safety on every job whether in the shop or field. Stay in the welding zone, but out of the comfort zone—that zone in which you forget to concentrate on the job at hand.

My high school knuckleheads always hate to hear that we are going to spend two weeks on safety at the beginning of our class. The second-year students remind me that they already covered safety in the first-year class. I then remind them to shut their pie holes and open their ears, because you never can get too much safety information.

I admit that safety classes can be boring, so I try to make them as lively as possible with plenty of breaks and diversions. I used to show some pretty gory tapes, until one student fainted. Although I no longer show these graphic tapes, I think they effectively drive home what can happen.

What Can Go Wrong?

In the shop I've seen workers' fingers' smashed and cut off; electric shock; flash burns; contact burns; a bad flash fire; and an explosion.

In the field I watched one friend fall 15 floors. (He had been married for two weeks, and his wife was expecting.) Another friend fell eight floors on the same job site. Two other friends died when a tower crane they were on fell.

I've seen two cranes fall, one completely backward with 200 feet of boom and a jib. I've fallen twice and had my hand smashed. I once stepped on a beam that was still hanging on the crane and went down like a seesaw. I somehow did a midair Olympic spin and caught the flange of another beam. A fellow ironworker pulled me back up. We were working overtime in 105-degree heat and the boss decided it was time for us to go home for that day.

Another time I fell off a third-floor beam only to land on a bricklayer's scaffold just below. Some connectors had seen me fall and were racing over when I climbed back up on the beam. I dusted myself off and acted like I had climbed back up from the ground. I thought it was funny; they did not! These are just a few of the close calls and minor cuts, scrapes, burns, and hurts I've had.

Ironically, both times I was hurt badly were because the other guywasn't being safe! Not only must you employ safe practices, you also must make sure those with whom you work do so as well.

Ask anyone who's been in the shop or field for any amount of time and I'm sure they'll be able to tell you about some accidents or close calls. My guardian angel had to work overtime with me, and even though I put up with a lot of pain, I feel I am a very lucky man.

Make Safety a Priority

So what do you do to keep from getting injured on the job? First and foremost is common sense. It is amazing how little common sense some people show on the job. Many workers have that old it-won't-happen-to-me belief. I'm here to tell you, yes, it can!

Safety education must be ongoing. Employers and workers must make safety training a priority. I've seen safety in both the shop and field improve dramatically in the last few years, but the risks are still there and always will be. Workers must receive the proper training, and job sites must be made as safe as possible. No job or deadline is as important as one welder's health.

If you work in the industry, please educate yourself and stay alert allthe time. And if you hire workers, please give them everything they need to stay safe. I've said before that we are rich if we have our health (see Taking Another Look at SMAW Safety). It's up to us all to watch out not only for ourselves, but each other.

Some good links for welding safety are:

Safety from Miller:

Safety from Lincoln:

Lincoln's downloadable safety brochure:

Canadian guide to welding fume hazards:

Great sites from the Association of Societies for Occupational Safety and Health (ASOSH) South Africa:

Oklahoma State University:

OSHA's safety and health topics on welding, cutting, and brazing:

Articles on safety from yours truly and my colleagues at

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