Welding is a process that can be hazardous to the health and safety of employees and those in close proximity. This guidance provides information about the hazards and risks associated with welding.
Welding is the process of joining materials together, usually metals, by heat or pressure or both. When heated, the metal reaches molten state and may be joined by heat only or with the use of filler materials. The heat is generated through electric currents (arc welding) or gases (gas welding).
Welding is undertaken in many industries including:
Welding may be undertaken to manufacture machinery, tools and equipment as well as for construction work, repair and maintenance work.
Welding equipment, the welding process, welding material, fillers and gases involved in welding and the welding workspace can all be a source of risk to operators and nearby employees health and safety.
Employers have a duty to provide and maintain for employees a working environment that is safe and without risks to health.
Employers have a duty under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) to eliminate risks to health and safety, so far as is reasonably practicable. If it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate risks to health and safety, you must reduce those risks, so far as is reasonably practicable.
Under the OHS Act and Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 (OHS Regulations), employers have specific duties and obligations they need to comply with in workplaces where employees may be exposed to hazardous substances like welding fumes or where a lead process is carried out.
Common hazards associated with welding include:
Fumes and other airborne contaminants
The welding process can generate:
gases (including ozone), which may be toxic to employees
Employee exposure to airborne contaminants may cause:
eye, skin and respiratory system irritation
Welding fumes can cause serious lung diseases and increase the risk of cancer. In 2017, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reclassified welding fumes as a group 1 Carcinogen.
UV radiation exposure
When welding, the electric arc emits ultraviolet light, visible light and infra-red radiation. Gas welding will emit visible light and infrared radiation. Exposure to the welding arc can lead to burns to exposed skin and the eyes from ultraviolet and infra-red radiation.
UV radiation from welding has also been classified as a group 1 Carcinogen by IARC, meaning exposure can increase the risk of developing cancer.
When welding, employees may be exposed to direct UV radiation produced by the arc and radiation reflected off hard and smooth surfaces in the workplace. Exposure can cause eye melanoma, cataracts (clouding on the lens of the eye) and burns to exposed skin. Exposure to the eyes can occur within seconds and can cause 'arc eye' or 'welders flash', which is very painful and can lead to temporary or permanent loss of vision.
Employees directly involved in the welding process are at greatest risk of exposure to UV radiation. However, other people in the workplace may also be exposed to UV radiation if they are present during the welding process and there are insufficient control measures in place.
Fire and explosions
Welding generates heat as well as sparks and flames, which are sources of ignition. Flammable and explosive substances or gases including oxygen are often present when welding and when they are combined with an ignition source, there is a significant risk of fire and explosion. Welders are at risk of serious injuries including burns from explosions and fire.
Employees are at risk of electric shock or electrocution when welding. Electrical faults can result in electric shock, burns or death of the welder when in contact with the work piece, live parts, electrodes, or contact with an unearthed cable or tool. Employees should ensure that the open circuit voltage is at a safe level and the currents are grounded before welding. Equipment also needs to be well maintained to avoid electric shock from worn down handguns, body or hoses.
Hazardous manual handling
When welding, employees may be at risk of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) associated with hazardous manual handling. MSDs can occur suddenly or develop over time. Employees are at risk of MSDs if they are engaging in tasks such as:
manual movement of heavy objects, such as moving or replacing gas cylinders
repetitive squeezing of welding handles or triggers
welding on the ground or in awkward positions
Compressed and liquefied gases
Welding involves the use of compressed and liquefied gases as a source of fuel, oxygen or in some cases as a type of shielding gas.
Gas cylinders used for welding must be secured correctly in a safe location in the workplace, to prevent cylinders falling over. If this occurs and the valve on the cylinder breaks, it can become a dangerous projectile that can strike and injure operators. Employees may also be exposed to leaking gas, which is not always easily detectable if there is no odour and can be extremely hazardous. Depending on the type of gas, leaking gas may displace oxygen in the workplace, potentially leading to asphyxiation for the operator. Leaking oxygen will increase the risk of fire or explosion in the workplace.
All heat and ignition sources should be kept away from the gas storage areas, incompatible gases should be segregated and all cylinder valves should be closed when not in use.
Other hazards like excessive noise, exposure to lead, confined spaces and falls can present a risk to employees during the welding process.