Safety Matters: Safety Requirements for Cutting and Welding Operations

Risks can be controlled with proper work practices and personal protective equipment (PPE)

Welding, cutting, and brazing are hazardous activities that pose risks to more than 500,000 workers; the risk of fatal injuries is more than four deaths per thousand workers over a working lifetime. 

The potential hazards present a unique combination of both physical and chemical risks to the worker. Potential exposures to metal fumes and non-ionizing radiation exist along with burns, eye damage, electrical shock, cuts, and crushed toes and fingers. But as is always the case, many of these risks can be controlled with proper work practices and personal protective equipment (PPE).

Physical hazards
Welders can be exposed to fire, ultraviolet (UV) and infrared radiation, and visible light. What is particularly dangerous about these exposures is that often workers may not perceive that they are being exposed — and if close enough to the source, the damage can happen almost instantly. It only takes seconds for radiation to cause burns to the cornea as well as thermal burns to the eye and skin. Burns to the eye create a sensation like having sand in the eye.

Before cutting or welding begins, the area should be inspected by an individual charged with the responsibility of authorizing cutting and welding operations. This individual should designate precautions to be followed and preferably these procedures are written down in a safety plan. 

Cutting and welding should always be conducted in areas that have been made fire safe by removing combustibles or protecting combustibles from ignition sources. If the object to be welded or cut cannot be moved and if all the fire hazards cannot be removed, then guards must be used to confine the heat, sparks, and slag, and protect the immovable fire hazards.

If welding or cutting is taking place out of doors, be aware of how dry the environment is. Where I live in Texas, we’ve been experiencing a drought for two years — if welding and cutting is conducted in a dry grass area a fire watch should be present. Fire watches must have fire extinguishing equipment readily available and be trained in its use. They must be familiar with the procedures for sounding an alarm and must be trained to know which fires can be extinguished with the available equipment or otherwise when to sound the alarm. A fire watch must be maintained for at least half an hour after completing the welding or cutting to guard against smoldering fires.

Other safety provisions to avoid fires include using a nonflammable tarp under the area where the welding is occurring or better still, if possible, move the welding operation so it doesn’t have to take place over vegetation. If welding outdoors in dry conditions, it’s a good idea to notify the local fire authority. They may give safety advice over the phone or they may even dispatch an inspector to the site to limit the fire risk.

One of the most common occupational injuries in welding comes from general burns from touching hot surfaces and not using PPE. These avoidable burns can get expensive for the business owners with workers taking time off, workers’ compensation expenses, medical claims, and lower productivity.

Another physical hazard to be aware of is electrical shocks. High voltage and amperage present risk of electrocution as well as thermal burning.

Chemical hazards
Always ensure and never assume that the welding surface is free of chemicals, greases, and noncombustible materials before welding begins. When welding on different types of metals, different compounds are produced. A number of potentially hazardous materials are used in fluxes, coatings, and coverings, and filler metals used in welding and cutting or are released to the atmosphere during the process. Metals themselves, oxides of metals, or different types of chemical gases can be released.

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