Welding can and should be considered a safe occupation; when proper precautions are taken, welders have no cause to fear accident or injury. But when safety isn’t taken seriously in the workplace, the risk of a severe incident becomes a real concern.
Education is the key to ensuring a safe and productive working environment for everyone. Employers need to invest in thorough and up-to-date training for all their employees to ensure that they understand the risks associated with welding, the mitigation strategies they can use, and the equipment available to prevent accident and injury.
Additionally, recognising the risks posed by mental health challenges and addressing these is vital to maintaining a healthy workforce.
Physical risks to health and safety
Welders are exposed to both physical and chemical hazards in the course of their work, and they utilise tools that can result in injury and electric shock if used incorrectly. Some of the most common hazards in a welding workplace include exposure to dangerous chemicals and fumes, injuries to the eyes through sparks and vapours, fire and explosions, and electric shock.
The process of gas welding involves the burning of chemicals such as argon, hydrogen fluoride and carbon monoxide, opening up the possibility of dangerous chemical exposure. To avoid exposure to chemicals, proper engineering controls (such as local exhaust systems) must be implemented to ensure sufficient ventilation throughout the welding workshop.
The welding arc can reach temperatures of up to 5,530°C, posing a risk of fire and explosions. All flammable and potentially explosive materials should be kept well away from welding areas, and workplaces need to ensure that proper emergency procedures are in place. Additionally, welders must always wear PPE in optimal condition to prevent an arc flash, or a burn caused by the ultra-violet radiation of electric welding arcs.
Dangers posed by welding fume
In recent years, the welding industry has become increasingly aware of the hazards posed by metal fume produced during the welding process. This fume, comprising of microscopic particles of hot metal and gases, poses serious risks when inhaled by welders.
Some of the known health effects caused by welding fume exposure include fever, stomach ulcers, kidney damage and damage to the nervous system. Welders can suffer from asthma, eye, nose and throat irritation, and even lung infections that can lead to pneumonia. In early 2017, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classed welding fumes as “carcinogenic to humans”.
It is vital that appropriate strategies are in place to reduce welder exposure to fumes and prevent the long-term health effects that can result from exposure. All welders should receive training on methods to mitigate the effects of metal fume, including positioning themselves to reduce exposure and investigating less toxic alternatives where possible.
Local Exhaust Ventilation (LEV) systems capture and extract welding fume at the source and are a proven way of reducing exposure. All workplaces should have fit-for-purpose LEV systems installed and regularly maintained.
Weld Australia has released a Technical Guidance Note Fume Minimisation Guidelines: Welding, Cutting, Brazing and Soldering, which includes all the information required to help protect workers from the hazards associated with welding fumes.
Electrical safety precautions in welding
Electrical safety is another area which must be seriously considered when reducing risks to welders. Electricity is a vital part of welding work, but when mishandled it can result in serious injury and death. Between 2014 and 2016, 7 people died due to electrocution while working.
According to Safe Work Australia’s Welding Processes Code of Practice, electric shock or electrocution can occur through direct contact with an electrode, live parts, a work piece, or through contact with a device such as an unearthed cable or tool. The risk of electric shock can be exacerbated by moisture and high humidity, both common in welding environments.
All welding professionals need to familiarise themselves with processes to minimise the risk of electric shock. Simple actions such as checking that equipment is dry and well maintained and installing shut down mechanisms such as fuses and low voltage safety switches can save lives. Ensuring that all employees are equipped with the knowledge and safety equipment required is key to preventing incidents in the workplace.
Non-compliant welding equipment
Welding safety requires constant vigilance to ensure that all equipment is maintained, operating correctly and being used with best practice in mind. Before starting any welding operation, a complete inspection of all welding equipment should be undertaken. The ten minutes required to complete a thorough check can prevent serious injuries and fatalities within the workplace.
Weld Australia has developed a Daily Inspection and Pre-Start Check List for welders to use, assisting users to check all equipment, connections, and power sources before beginning work. It is important that welders feel empowered to report any unsafe equipment to their supervisor and to ask for new equipment and PPE where it is not provided.
Mental Health: a crucial part of keeping welders safe
It is well understood that to work effectively and safely in a welding workplace, employees need to be mentally sharp and engaged in their environment. A positive headspace does more than making a workday more enjoyable; it prevents the kind of mental lapses that can result in mistakes and accidents.
But the welding industry, along with many other industries relating to construction, is suffering from a mental health crisis. Our workers are struggling with issues including anxiety and depression, and often not getting the help they need from within their workplace.
Fifteen per cent of Australians will experience depression in their lifetime, according to Beyond Blue. Men are more likely to die by suicide than women, with the number of men who die by suicide every year double the national road toll.
Right now, our industry is predominantly male, and we need to be taking the risks posed by depression and anxiety seriously. Recent statistics show that workers in construction and similar trades are more at risk, with 25 per cent of workers experiencing mental illness over the last twelve months according to research conducted by the National Electrical and Communications Association (NECA). Workers in these industries are 70 per cent more likely to die by suicide than office workers.
Why is our industry more susceptible to mental health problems? There are several theories, predominantly that the stress and pressure associated with working in high-risk environments. Welding, like other construction jobs, is physically demanding and puts pressure on workers to perform to a high standard or risk potentially fatal accidents. Welders are facing increased job insecurity due to the rise in contractual work and fluctuations in the national economy.
Additionally, research shows that many in our industry experience a poor quality of life. The divorce rate in the construction industry is 6 per cent higher than the national average. Australian construction workers have double the rate of life-threatening drinking habits, compared to the national average, and a drug use rate that is 10 per cent higher.
In addition, the construction industry is known to be an environment in which traditional perceptions of masculinity persist. Masculine ideals are founded on toughness, control, autonomy and competence. Seeking help, or even admitting a need for help, can be both confronting and challenging for people (men in particular) working or living in such a setting.
How can we change these perceptions and create a safer environment for welders? How can we better support people facing challenges in their mental health and personal lives?
These problems are complex and not easily solved, but it is vital that employers begin to seriously consider what they can do to improve the mental fitness of their workforce.
Encouraging all employees – from apprentices to the most experienced on site – to ask for help and even time off if required, is an important first step. Educating workers on the prevalence of mental health problems, and the risks posed by these, helps to stop stigma around these issues. It’s vital that all workers feel comfortable expressing problems without fear of judgement, and good leadership will involve demonstrating this at the highest levels.
Creating a safer workplace
In 2019, Weld Australia established the Welding Safety Council to provide a forum for industry and legislative safety authorities to identify solutions to safety problems. The mission of the Council is to maintain the infrastructure required to identify and analyse welding risk and formulate and execute mitigation strategies.
To help build the mental fitness of Australian welders, Weld Australia has partnered with Gotcha4Life and Man Anchor. Gotcha4Life’s vision is to strengthen social connections between people so that they can be comfortable expressing themselves and supporting friends who are struggling. They fund training programs across Australia. Man Anchor focuses on educating Australian men on mental illness, and facilitates a range of educational workshops and a mental health first aid course. Through these partnerships, Weld Australia is helping member companies to facilitate workshops and talks for their employees.
Additionally, the Weld Australia website offers resources for individuals and businesses to access mental health assistance and encourages everyone working in welding to support their colleagues and remove the stigma associated with mental health issues.
Together, we can find innovative solutions to ensure that everyone involved in the welding industry is kept safe every day, both on and off the worksite.