Welding Safety Tips

by R. Bruce Wright, CPCU

Welding is a common activity in the utility business, with many specific hazards to address.

Many, perhaps even a majority, of our utilities have welding equipment for use in the shop to repair damaged metal in vehicles, equipment, and tools. While this is a common activity in the utility business, there are specific hazards associated with welding that can injure employees, damage property and eat into margins.

What are these risks to your business? Without proper precautions in place, welding can be a very dangerous activity. Because many common welding procedures involve an open electric arc, flame and/or sparks, the risk of burns, fires, or even explosions is significant. You should make sure that your utility’s welding practices are as safe as they can be. You should have basic programs in place that offer:

  • Regular inspections and hazard reviews
  • Complete training programs and refreshers
  • A comprehensive personal protective equipment (PPE) program for your staff

To reduce the risk of potential losses and improve productivity, here is some practical advice to help your workers stay safe. Tips for improving welding safety in your operations:

  • Read the book! A welder’s operating manual contains important safety information, as well as procedures to maximize the machine’s potential. Make sure everyone who operates the machine is familiar with the manual’s contents.
  • Protect the eyes and face. It takes only a brief exposure to a welding arc for unprotected eyes to experience “arc flash” — a painful and potentially permanent injury that may not appear until hours after exposure. Welding helmets should be fitted with a proper lens filter shade to protect the face and eyes of those either welding or watching. Appropriate eye and face protection, meeting OSHA 1910.133 standards, is required for all types of welding and brazing operations. Proper eye and face protection is essential to any safety program that involves welding.
  • Wear the proper protective clothing. Choose only flame-resistant clothing. Provide welding gloves with ergonomically curved fingers designed for the specific welding processes. Avoid the “one-size-fits-all” type of gloves.
  • Button up! All exposed skin should be covered. Any exposed skin offers the potential of painful and damaging effects of ultraviolet and infrared rays. Sparks can catch in open pockets, pant cuffs or down a shirt not completely buttoned. Welders should also be instructed to remove matches or butane lighters from their pockets during welding operations.
  • Avoid repetitive stress injuries. When compared to a traditional fixed-shade helmet, an auto-darkening helmet reduces neck fatigue because the helmet’s design is usually lighter and there is no need for the operator to snap his or her head to drop the hood down.
  • Avoid all clutter. The welding area should contain only the tools and equipment an operator uses — nothing more, nothing less. Welding areas should be free of combustibles and may require a fire watch to comply with OSHA 1910.252 standards.
  • Use hot work permits. Complete one every time a job requires welding, cutting or similar operations.

When welding is only occasional, one often overlooked exposure is the need for ventilation. Fumes and smoke emitted during welding may pose a health hazard. The use of an exhaust hood will help to remove contaminants from the area. Some materials specifically require respirators when welding. Evaluate work areas and research materials to ensure safe practices.

  • Consult the manufacturer’s welding electrode or base metal data sheets, your welding supplies vendor, or a safety specialist, for guidance on proper ventilation and respiratory protection procedures.
  • When welding is conducted in confined spaces, toxic contaminants may accumulate or shielding gases might replace breathable air. Work should be conducted in full compliance with standards specified in OSHA 1910.146, Permit-Required Confined Spaces.
  • Know your materials. Be aware of the composition of the welding rod (electrode), the type of filler and base metals being used, and the paints and other coatings on the metals.
  • General ventilation such as fans, roof vents, or open doors and windows all can promote air movement through the work area.

Most utilities weld, and most weld only occasionally. But the hazards associated with welding are notable and require active prevention efforts to avoid injuries or damage. In fact, when an activity is rare, it may require more attention and training due to the fact that it is not as familiar as more routine tasks. Don’t overlook the exposures presented by welding to your workers, to your property, and to your bottom line!