Welder health and safety — Who's responsible?

October 10, 2006
By: Vicki Bell

The "Welding Wire" e-newsletter asked subscribers their opinions about who is responsible for ensuring welder health and safety. This article describes the hazards inherent in welding and contains insight from a welding instructor, a business owner, and individuals with personal knowledge of unsafe operations.

Welding is a hazardous occupation. The Occupational Outlook Handbookfrom the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) describes the common risks associated with welding:

Welding, soldering, and brazing workers often are exposed to a number of hazards, including the intense light created by the arc, poisonous fumes, and very hot materials. They wear safety shoes, goggles, hoods with protective lenses, and other devices designed to prevent burns and eye injuries and to protect them from falling objects. They normally work in well-ventilated areas to limit their exposure to fumes. Automated welding, soldering, and brazing machine operators are not exposed to as many dangers, however, and a face shield or goggles usually provide adequate protection for these workers.

Welders and cutters may work outdoors, often in inclement weather, or indoors, sometimes in a confined area designed to contain sparks and glare. Outdoors, they may work on a scaffold or platform high off the ground. In addition, they may be required to lift heavy objects and work in a variety of awkward positions, while bending, stooping, or standing to perform work overhead.

Intensified Focus on Health and Safety

Recent lawsuits filed by welders against welding rod manufacturers have raised questions about who ultimately is responsible for keeping welders healthy and safe in their jobs. A "Welding Wire" newsletter item that reported a Cleveland jury's decision that welding rod-makers are not liable for the health problems of a former civilian welder at a Navy base elicited many responses from subscribers about the ruling and who is responsible for welder safety—welding equipment manufacturers, employers, or welders.

Readers on Safety

Commenting on the jury decision, 49 percent of "Welding Wire" subscribers who responded to the newsletter said that the welding equipment manufacturers' warnings are sufficient, and welders have only themselves to blame if they suffer welding-related health problems. Nine percent of respondents placed the burden of protecting welders on the equipment manufacturers, and 3 percent on both manufacturers and employers. Another 7 percent felt that employers alone are responsible for protecting welders, and 6 percent believed that both welders and employers are responsible.

When these statistics were reported in a subsequent issue of "Welding Wire," more subscribers shared their thoughts about this topic, and most believed that all entities are responsible.

Uncle Sam

A subscriber who works for a company that provides motion control, flow control, and metal treatment products and services believes that the U.S. government also is responsible for welder health and safety. He wrote, "I am aware of many articles addressing the welders' exposure health risks, and I am of the opinion that the responsibility for the health and safety of people in or related to the welding industry lies jointly between manufacturers, manufacturing management, welders, welding operators, and the U.S. government. [These articles include those] related to the possibility that nickel, chrome, and cobalt ingested through welding smoke maybe hazardous to your health. These warnings must be brought to the table and dealt with for everyone's safety."

The subscriber continued, "Manufacturers feel if they submit the material safety data sheets (MSDS), the action is sufficient to alert the general public of any hazards the product may hold. In real life, these documents are [provided] to the worker compiled in a three-ring binder and placed in the work area; stored on the company computer system at the supervisor's office; or kept in the safety department files. They are not deciphered into practical, understandable words for each level of employee. They are not relayed to the worker through workplace meetings and are not reviewed with the welders when an addendum is received. They are just placed in an area that relieves the criteria of making them accessible to all parties."

The subscriber went on to say that employers are equally responsible, and he reiterated what he perceives to be the dismal handling of the MSDS. "I have seen these binders ... usually covered with dust and in an area easily overlooked. The employer spends more time and resources on drug/alcohol screening than on periodic blood tests for welders."

He also chided manufacturers who hold workplace meetings for the entire work force that focus on general safety topics only—housekeeping, safe lifting practices, crane use—and do not spend time with welders focusing on welding safety issues. And he mentioned that some smaller fabrication shops lack adequate ventilation, and smoke exhausters in weld areas often are nonexistent.

According to this subscriber, the government, especially OSHA, has the ultimate responsibility to protect the U.S. worker and must take the lead. "Testing to prove or disprove the theory that nickel and chrome are carcinogens must be started. Increased surveys of the welding workplace should be undertaken. Education for the welder and welding operators should be initiated, with levels of training brought down to that which even the most uneducated worker can understand."

Serious Negligence Example

Another subscriber, who asked to remain anonymous, wrote about a personal experience that showed a blatant disregard for worker safety. "In 1979 I was asked to push a construction millwright crew in an old taconite plant. It was a turnaround job involving arc-airing out several tons of steel that was covered in gunite that was 70 percent asbestos.

"I asked for proper abatement protocol to be used, and I was threatened with termination. I went to the union steward, who supported the contractor's position. I quit ('dragged up,' as they say).

"I reported the situation to the union and was informed that gunite did not contain asbestos. But I had consulted with the company engineer in the engineering offices that day. We had rolled out the original blueprints and they had 'Gunite 70% Asbestos' stamped in 3-inch capital letters in red ink on every page.

"About a year later, I ran into the steward, and I asked him if they had used federally mandated abatement procedures. He said they had not. The contractor had cycled all of the 27 men on that crew through that task, which took three weeks, with only 3M dust masks for protection. Asbestos must have floated freely throughout the entire plant. All the workers in that facility were endangered and brought asbestos home to their families on their clothes.

"That kind of cavalier disregard for human safety is unacceptable in any situation."

North of the Border

According to a Canadian subscriber who described his experience in an automotive parts manufacturing facility with a poor air circulation and exhaust system, sometimes even government monitoring isn't enough to dissuade manufacturers from unsafe practices.

The subscriber wrote that in this facility, during peak periods, many welding machines were used, which resulted in a "unit full of welding fumes hazardous to human health." In this situation, the workers' union took the issue to the government authority. The government inspectors visited the plant and took air samples, which revealed satisfactory results. The subscriber attributed the findings to the plant owner "reducing the number of welding machines operating during the planned inspection. The next day the production started back to its full capacity, and the unit again had the same smoky environment."

This same subscriber also has experienced the absence of welding screens to protect workers in the areas adjacent to the welders, and he stressed the importance of training welders to use machines safely.

Look out for No. 1

Subscriber Ray Clevernger, a welding instructor at Northwest State Community College who has taught high school students and adults, shared the reasons he believes welders must assume final responsibility for their safety. He wrote, "One thing is very evident—the welder himself has to assume the final responsibility because he is the one working in the danger zone. To think that the employer or the manufacturer is going to look out for you is not at all wise. You cannot rely on anyone else to do the job entirely for you.

"Manufacturers, suppliers, and employers must do their jobs to inform you of the dangers, but you are the one on the line and have the most to lose. Too many employers are concerned first with getting the job done cheaply, and safety is a concern after a problem has occurred. Most safety meetings I have been asked to run were the results of an accident occurring that drew attention to a problem. [Employers] conduct a safety meeting to show their concern, then it's back to the usual. They may care, but you'd better care more!

"Too many workers are afraid that if they complain about poor ventilation and other issues, they will be discriminated against in some way. Job security versus personal security."

Shared Responsibility

While it's true that the individual welder has the most to lose from poor health and safety practices on the job, welding equipment manufacturers and employers also have much to lose if employee health and safety are disregarded, and all share in the responsibility for welder safety.

George Eberl, co-owner of Eberl Iron Works, Buffalo, N.Y.; former president of the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association Intl.® (FMA); and former member of the FMA/CNA Safety Committee, provided succinct guidelines for all three entities to ensure welder safety.

Eberl said, "The manufacturer, employer, and employee have a shared responsibility for welder safety. The manufacturer must attempt to provide proper warning labels and safe design of equipment. The employer must train the worker in equipment use and demonstrate good-faith efforts to supervise the worker to assure appropriate procedure. The employee must ultimately follow the manufacturer's warning labels and recommendations for use and follow the employer's training and safety procedures. If the employee doesn't follow rules when the employer isn't watching, then the employee should be held accountable."

The subscriber who related the account of the gunite removal extended the scope of responsibility. "Everybody is responsible for the health and safety of workers. We are human beings. We're responsible to each other in all matters.

"Americans rush into combat, falling towers, raging rivers, and burning buildings to save one another. Why should it be acceptable to allow another person to be injured in an industrial setting? The answer is that it is not acceptable. It should not even be thinkable.

"In the last analysis, however, the worker is ultimately responsible for his own safety, because it is impossible to guarantee the safety of every situation. One must be diligent in one's own protection."

Vicki Bell

Vicki Bell

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8209

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