The familiar hierarchy of controls shows that elimination is the most effective risk control strategy, while PPE is the least effective. (WorkSafeBC graphic)

Key Protections for Arc Welders

Controlling the risks is done by applying the hierarchy of controls: elimination, substitution, engineering controls (such as ventilation systems to remove welding fume), administrative controls, and finally, PPE.

BLS has reported 404,800 U.S. workers were employed1 during 2016 as welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers, and that they had one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses among all occupations. They may work outdoors, often in bad weather, or indoors, even underwater, and sometimes work in confined spaces. They may be working in awkward positions, on scaffolds, and may be exposed to very hot materials, toxic fumes, noise, fire hazards, electrical hazards, arc radiation, and more.

Hazard Assessment and the Hierarchy of Controls
Controlling these risks adequately starts with a hazard assessment that looks at the physical work environment, equipment and materials being used, and how the work tasks will be performed. Hazard identification may involve a walk-through assessment of the workplace; talking with workers about how the job is being carried out, inspecting the materials and equipment before work begins; reading product labels, manufacturers' instruction manuals, and safety data sheets; and reviewing incident and injury reports.

The severity of the identified risks will depend on many factors, including the properties of the materials to be welded, the condition of the welding equipment, conditions under which the welding will be done (such as inside confined spaces, at height, etc.), and the skills and experience of the welder.

Authorities stress that controlling these risks is done by applying the hierarchy of controls: elimination, substitution, engineering controls (such as ventilation systems to remove welding fume), administrative controls, and finally, personal protective equipment.

But PPE is nonetheless critical to many occupations, particularly that of a welder. Protective clothing, gloves, welding helmets, and respiratory protection are essential gear for many welders.

An online OSHA Ergonomics eTool2 for electrical contractors recommends these possible solutions to prevent ergonomic injuries brought on by prolonged work by welders in static and awkward postures:

  • Provide height-adjustable tables and jigs that hold the piece in a position enabling employees to maintain neutral postures.
  • Provide anti-fatigue mats and shoe inserts that may help reduce fatigue and discomfort caused by prolonged standing on hard floor surfaces. These mats help distribute the pressure from a hard floor evenly to the feet and may improve circulation.
  • Pre-plan welding jobs to minimize awkward postures.
  • Do not conduct welding on the ground or floor.
  • Avoid kneeling. Use low stools instead.
  • When kneeling is required, wear kneepads.
  • When purchasing new personal protective equipment, consider the weight of items such as helmets, aprons, and jackets to reduce the load that must be supported if employees must bend neck or trunk to perform tasks.
  • Provide a stand and hoist to get welding material to appropriate height to eliminate awkward postures.
  • Use adjustable rotator stands such as a retrofitted air or hydraulic lift package to better maintain a neutral posture while welding.

Fire and Electrical Hazards
Burns and electrical shock are two of the most serious risks for a welder. OSHA's Welding, Cutting, and Brazing standard says, at 1910.252(a)(1)(i), that "if the object to be welded or cut cannot readily be moved, all movable fire hazards in the vicinity shall be taken to a safe place."

The standard also addresses combustible materials, saying wherever there are floor openings or cracks in the flooring that can't be closed, workers are to take precautions to ensure that no readily combustible materials on the floor below will be exposed to sparks. Suitable fire extinguishing equipment (such as portable extinguishers, pails of water, buckets of sand, etc.) is to be kept ready for instant use, and fire watchers who are equipped with fire extinguishing equipment and trained in its use are required whenever welding or cutting is performed in locations where anything more than a minor fire might develop or one of these conditions exists:

  • Appreciable combustible material, in building construction or contents, is closer than 35 feet to the point of operation.
  • Appreciable combustibles are more than 35 feet away but are easily ignited by sparks.
  • Wall or floor openings within a 35-foot radius expose combustible material in adjacent areas, including concealed spaces in walls or floors.
  • Combustible materials are adjacent to the opposite side of metal partitions, walls, ceilings, or roofs and are likely to be ignited by conduction or radiation.

Fire watchers also "shall be familiar with facilities for sounding an alarm in the event of a fire. They shall watch for fires in all exposed areas, try to extinguish them only when obviously within the capacity of the equipment available, or otherwise sound the alarm. A fire watch shall be maintained for at least a half hour after completion of welding or cutting operations to detect and extinguish possible smoldering fires," according to the standard's text.

The standard says welding and cutting are not to be permitted in some specific circumstances: locations where it is not authorized by management; in sprinklered buildings while that protection is impaired; in the presence of an explosive atmosphere, or when explosive atmospheres may develop inside uncleaned or improperly prepared tanks or equipment that previously contained such materials or that may develop in areas with an accumulation of combustible dusts; or in areas near the storage of large quantities of exposed, readily ignitable materials.

Welding Fume
Arc welding also may produce fumes, which are composed of metals and usually contain a small amount of manganese, according to NIOSH. Studies have shown neurological damage associated with workers’ exposure to manganese in welding fumes, the agency has reported.

A study3, funded in part by NIOSH, of the prevalence of manganese exposures among welders in the construction industry was presented at the 2013 AIHce conference by Michael R. Flynn of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and co-author Pam Susi, CIH, MSPH, of CPWR; it is still available on the eLCOSH (Electronic Library of Construction Occupational Safety & Health) website. They analyzed a data set from OSHA of more than 100,000 measurements from approximately 30,000 welders in various industries over 30 years, from 1978 to 2008. The authors used the OSHA data to characterize the welders' eight-hour time-weighted exposures to airborne contaminants, focusing on manganese and evaluating mixed exposures with additive effects, especially manganese and lead. They reported that both heavy construction and structural steel erection welders had an elevated risk of overexposure to manganese and lead jointly, and there was limited evidence of declines in exposures over time for one substance and group: iron in special trade contractors. The authors recommended a reduced PEL for manganese, increased use of local exhaust ventilation by construction welders, and targeting both joint exposures and carcinogens of concern, notably cadmium and hexavalent chromium.4


This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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