Safeguarding Workers During Welding and Cutting
Welding, cutting and brazing pose health risks to more than 500,000 workers; the risk of fatal injuries is more than four deaths per thousand workers over a working lifetime.
Welders can be exposed to fire, ultraviolet and infrared radiation as well as intense visible light. Before allowing an operator to begin cutting or welding, fabricators should perform a fire-hazard inspection of the area, as designated in a written safety plan. They should either remove all combustibles; shield them from ignition sources; or employ appropriate guards to confine the heat, sparks and slag generated during cutting and welding. And, when welding outdoors in dry conditions, ensure that a trained fire watch with extinguishing equipment is present.
The consequences of welding and cutting without taking the appropriate safety measures can be extremely serious. The upper respiratory tract, nose, throat and eyes are at risk. Short-term exposures may lead to pulmonary edema, lung irritation, chemical pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses. Exposure to zinc fumes can cause metal-fume fever, the symptoms of which are very similar to the flu.
OSHA requires sampling during welding to determine if exposure levels fall within acceptable ranges. If not, the employer must take the necessary steps to bring exposures to acceptable levels.
PPE—Employees exposed to hazards created by welding, cutting or brazing operations must be protected by personal-protective equipment (PPE) in accordance with OSHA requirements. Appropriate protective clothing required for any welding operation will vary with the size, nature and location of the work to be performed. Burns from touching hot surfaces and not using PPE poses one of the most common welding-related risks, as does electrocution from high voltage and electrical current.
Welding PPE may include welding hoods, goggles, nonflammable shirts and pants, welding gloves and steel-toed boots. A respirator or positive pressure hood can minimize exposure to metal fumes produced during the welding process.
Chemical hazards—Always ensure—never assume—that the welding surface is free of chemicals, greases and other hazardous materials before welding begins. A number of potentially hazardous materials are used in fluxes, coatings, coverings and filler metals used in welding and cutting, or are released to the atmosphere during the process. Metals themselves, oxides of metals, and different types of chemical gases can be released during welding.
Training—Management must insist that cutting and welding operators and their supervisors receive training in PPE use and function; the ability to make decisions about when to use PPE; and the effective use of fire extinguishers and fire-prevention methods. Refresher safety training also should be required.
For more information and to access a list of industrial-hygiene consultants specializing in these issues, visit the American Industrial Hygiene Association at http://www.aiha.org/.
See also: American Industrial Hygiene Assoc.
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