When it comes to health and safety in the industrial workplace, the welfare of employees is the most important consideration. Worksites and factories are full of risks that must be assessed and accounted for so that safe workplace practice can go ahead. This can include infrastructure, materials, other workers and contaminants.
In 2018/2019, 147 workers were killed at work and 550,000 injuries occurred in the workplace, leading to 30.7 million working days being lost. Each year, 13,000 deaths are suspected to be a result of past workplace exposure.
Multiple studies have observed excess mortality from pneumonia in welders and workers exposed to metal fumes as well as an increase in pulmonary infection in metal workers.
Controlling safety hazards and understanding how to resolve them is the only way to help prevent injury or harmful exposure. In this guide, we will outline the common welding safety hazards and how you can avoid them.
Importance of welding health and safety
Controlling the safety of workers while welding might seem like a no-brainer but there’s a lot to consider, from fumes to tools to the environment. If welders are working at height or in an unfamiliar or high-risk environment (such as offshore workers or on an electric plant) then further safety concerns should be enforced.
All standards and considerations should already be practised in line with the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. This act makes it the duty of every employer to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work for every employee. This includes the provision of instruction, training, PPE and supervision as well as maintenance of machinery and equipment.
Not only does health and safety keep your workers safe but it also ensures that, as a company, you do not suffer huge profit losses as a result of legal consequences or downtime from missing workers. You can’t put a price on human life but you can put a price on neglecting it.
Common welding safety hazards
A voltage as low as 50 volts applied between two parts of the human body causes a current to flow that can block the electrical signals between the brain and the muscles. This can stop the heart or lungs.
When an electrical current passes through the human body, it heats the tissue along the length of the current flow. This can lead to deep burns that often require major surgery and permanent disability.
The arc welding process requires a live electrical circuit. This means that all arc welders using hand-held equipment will be at risk of electric shock and electrical burns. The risk for MIG/ MAG and TIG welding is reduced because the welding current is normally switched on and off using the trigger or footswitch so is more controlled.
For all arc welding processes, the essentials of safe practice are:
- Welding equipment conforms to the appropriate international (ISO) or British (BS) standards.
- Fixed welding equipment is installed by a qualified person and is connected as recommended by the manufacturer.
- The insulation on the welding and current return leads is undamaged and the conductor is thick enough to carry the current safely.
- All connectors are clean, undamaged and correctly rated for the current required.
- Never use equipment with damaged insulation on the welding cables, plugs, clamps or torch/electrode holder as this exposes live circuits.
- Use the appropriate personal protective equipment for the task such as rubber gloves or gauntlets.
As for the environment, should a worker need to weld in damp or wet conditions or position the welder inside a tank, an insulating mat or dry platform should be provided so there is no direct contact with wet or conductive surfaces. A rubber floor mat or wooden pallet will work but should be large enough to offer protection if the welder has to kneel or lie down.
Welders should make sure their PPE or clothing is clean, and dry and should cover as much of the body as possible to minimise naked skin so they are less conductive. Welders clothing like overalls can provide a thick fabric layer to protect sensitive skin.
Fumes & Gases:
All welding types produce smoke that contains harmful metal fume and gas byproducts such as aluminium, arsenic, lead, nitrogen, carbon monoxide and hydrogen fluoride.
Acute exposure to welding fume and gases can result in eye, nose and throat irritation, dizziness and nausea.
Prolonged exposure to welding fume can cause fatal damage to organs and immune systems. Health effects from certain fumes may include metal fume fever, stomach ulcers, kidney damage and nervous system damage. Prolonged exposure to manganese fumes can cause Parkinson’s–like symptoms.
Gases such as helium, argon, and carbon dioxide displaces oxygen in the air and can lead to suffocation, especially in enclosed spaces. Carbon monoxide, a scentless gas, won’t be detected by the welder and is a serious asphyxiation hazard.
As of February 2019, the HSE will no longer permit welding to be carried out without suitable control measures in place, regardless of duration. Control measures will range from ventilation to suitable respiratory protective equipment (RPE), depending on the nature of the activity.
The damage done to welders, without correct health and safety practises, is not always instant. That’s why it’s important to protect your workers from the very beginning. Without protection against fumes and gases, employees can become another fatality in the 13,000 deaths already attributed to workplace exposure every year.
To control this risk, in line with new standards from the HSE, suitable engineering controls will be needed for indoor welding activities such as Local Exhaust Ventilation (LEV).
Where LEV does not cover the risk of exposure, it should be supplemented by RPE to protect against residual fume.
Appropriate RPE should always be provided for welding outdoors and all welders must be trained and instructed on how to use their RPE because when used incorrectly PPE can be useless.
The HSE will no longer be accepting any welding activities to be carried out without any suitable exposure control measure in place as NO LEVEL is safe.
Monitoring air quality is a key safety factor as a lot of damaging fumes are non-detectable by human senses. Airwatch Monitoring System continuously monitors the air quality in production halls and warehouses using an optical, laser-operated measuring method. In addition, AirWatch controls the room ventilation and extraction systems and thus ensures efficient use as required.
PPE ensures that all individuals are protected during personal tasks and that their PPE is there when they need it. While FFP1 dust masks are suitable for airborne particles that are more irritable than dangerous, FFP2 and FFP3 masks should be chosen for welding and used alongside previous measures mentioned.
Fire or Explosion:
Fires and explosions caused by hot works have claimed the lives of many workers. Despite the fact the risks have been known for years, fatal and life-changing accidents still occur.
Hot metal parts, sparks and drips of molten metal can easily start a fire. Before starting to weld, wood, fabric, cardboard and other flammable material should always be cleared. Note that the heat, sparks and drips of metal and slag can travel a considerable distance and can start fires in adjacent rooms.
One of the main (and most dangerous) causes of fires and explosions is welding on, or near, flammable substances. When using a welder or flame cut on drums and tanks make sure you know the risks and can compensate for them.
In Scotland, a young welder was using a plasma cutter to remove the lid from a drum. When the blade began to cut through the metal, it generated a shower of sparks that ignited the flammable vapours inside the drum. The drum exploded, causing the lid to strike the welder on the head, resulting in fatal injuries.
A Health and Safety Executive investigation found that the cutting operation had not been properly risk assessed by the company. The drum had not been completely emptied of waste engine oil, and this would have been contaminated with petrol, causing the drum to be filled with petrol vapours.
The investigation also found that there was a lack of information, instruction and training, leading to the worker using an unsafe method to carry out the task. Although it was known by workers at the garage the used engine oil could be contaminated with fuel, they were not fully aware of the dangers of using a heat source such as the plasma cutter to remove the drum lid. The employer was prosecuted and fined £15,000.
Welding equipment requires gas to function. When welding or transporting materials, always be aware of gas spills or dangerous levels. If have to carry any gas cylinder inside a vehicle you should always close the main cylinder valve and ensure they won’t knock together.
Welding jobs have lots of risks to the body that can come from equipment and environmental factors like height, lose parts or infrastructure, sharp objects and heavy loads.
Eye injuries make up around a quarter of all welding injuries and can be permanent. These can be burns welding sparks, chemical vapours or radiation damage from ultraviolet and infrared. “Welder’s flash,” a burn to the eyes, accounts for a great deal of construction eye injuries.
Optical and face PPE lowers these risks considerably. Goggles and glasses approved to correct EN standards will protect the eyes from small projectiles and sparks. For full facial protection, welding headshields and masks give a wider coverage layer. For super protection, even against fumes, ADFLO systems are the ultimate in welding PPE for respiratory and visual hazard control.
Falls and crushing are also risks that lead to a high number of injuries during welding work. This is usually when a risk assessment of the building or surroundings has not been carried out. If a welder must lay down or stand under large objects then the vibrations should not make materials fall. If a welder is operating at height, how are they secured? One misstep backwards can be a long way down.
Best ways to ensure welding safety?
Ensuring welding safety is all about preparation. No employee or worker should ever proceed to weld without the correct equipment, information or training. Every new environment and situation (and any change to a regular workplace) should be assessed to see whether new safety measures should be put in place.
Long-term damage to personnel is as dangerous and damaging as short-term injury and all risks should be handled with the same integrity and care. By avoiding risks in the workplace, you can ensure your workers or your own health is protected as well as your brand reputation, revenue and relationships.
Safety hazards in the welding industry are always going to exist but they can be reduced drastically by using the appropriate equipment and making necessary preparations. Choose tools and welding machines you can trust.
At PWP, we strive to assist the metal fabrication industry. We only supply our customers with brands that we know are the best so workers can stay safe while also being efficient and reducing downtime. We’re fully prepared and equipped to protect you against risks with our expansive range of welding PPE.