On Aug. 23, at 11:30 a.m., black smoke filled the morning sky above Knoxville, Tennessee. A worker at Keisler Automation was welding a vehicle component when the part caught fire. Within seconds, the fire also spread to nearby garages, destroying the structures and the equipment within. According to Wate.com, “the business was destroyed.” Seven days later, another welding-related fire made headlines. At Northwest Middle School in Jackson, Mississippi, students watched from their school buses while black flames licked the roof of their school. A construction worker accidentally started the fire while attempting to weld a component on the roof of the building. That same month, a man welding a carport in a wooded area unintentionally ignited a massive, 14-acre fire in Palo Pinto County, Texas.
Unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents. In fact, welding-related fires are very common. According to The Fabricator, 1% of structure fires and 4% of property damage are attributed to welding and cutting operations. In the worst cases, welding-related fires result in debilitating burns, blindness, or even death. To safeguard property and welding personnel from fires, it is important that all welders familiarize themselves with potential fire hazards and safety practices. In this blog, we’ll lay out five safety tips that can reduce fire hazards.
1. Investigate Surroundings before Welding Begins
Fire prevention begins, first and foremost, with the welder. Whether you’re inside a shop or out in the field, all welders should investigate the welding area and their surroundings prior to welding. In fact, the welder should clear a distance of 35-feet from the welding area. The appropriate measures should be taken if any welding hazards are identified. These can include removing the fire hazard, relocating the welding project to a different area, or covering the hazard with nonflammable materials. Welding environments, and their surrounding areas, must be kept clean and free of flammable material before and during welding. In most cases, welding operations should only be performed in areas that have been purposely designed to minimize potential fires.
2. Keep Flammable Materials Far from Welding Areas
The sparks and expulsion of molten metal produced by welding and cutting processes are ready sources of ignition that can travel up to 35 feet (10 meters) from their source. Because sparks can travel so far, any combustible material in the immediate area can pose a significant fire hazard. As a result, all welding areas should be free of flammable materials. A flammable material is anything that can be easily set on fire. These include rags, cardboard boxes, paper bags, food, dust, dry leaves, gas cylinders, wood, and cans of paint, solvents, and cleaning products.
In cases where flammable materials cannot be relocated to a safe distance from the welding, then the welding must be moved to a designated safe location. Alternatively, the work area itself can also be enclosed with portable flame-resistant screens that prevent sparks from reaching flammable materials. If neither the flammable material nor the welding can be moved a safe distance from one another, then the flammable material should be covered with tight-fitting, flame-resistant material to prevent ignition. For example, many homes have wood flooring. Wood is a highly-flammable material that must be covered with the appropriate nonflammable material prior to welding.
Utilizing a fire watcher is another alternative for instances where welding cannot be removed from an area with considerable flammable materials. Fire watchers are responsible for monitoring the welding and surrounding areas to ensure there is no sign of fire. Fire watchers continue to monitor the area for at least one half-hour after welding is completed to ensure no possible risk of fire.
3. Cover Holes and Cracks
Many welders don’t consider cracks, pipe holes, and other small openings a significant fire hazard. However, flying sparks and molten metal can lodge themselves in small openings in floors and partitions. When this occurs, the material may smolder unseen for seconds, minutes, or even hours before eventually igniting. To prevent sparks from lodging into small openings, identify these areas prior to welding and cover them with the appropriate nonflammable material, move welding to a different location, and/or utilize nonflammable screens.
4. Always Wear the Appropriate PPE
Personal protection equipment, or PPE, refers to garments and equipment that are designed to safeguard the operator’s body from physical injury. However, PPE can also prevent fires from occurring in the first place. Welders are directly exposed to flying sparks and molten metal, which can become lodged in the crevices of rolled-up sleeves, collar shirts, pant cuffs, or pockets, resulting in a fire. To prevent such an occurrence, welders should wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants that come over the shoes. Synthetic clothing should be avoided because they are easier to ignite.
5. Always Keep a Fire Extinguisher Nearby
Even if you’re very cautious, it’s important to be ready for any danger that may occur. As such, all areas where welding is being performed must have a fire extinguisher nearby. Fire extinguishers are very effective in handling the early stages of a fire. When utilized, portable fire extinguishers effectively eliminate 80% of fires. It’s important to note that there are different types of fire extinguishers – some are more effective at eliminating certain types of fires than others. For example, Type A fire extinguishers are most effective on combustible solids, such as paper, wood, and clothing. In contrast, Type B fire extinguishers are most effective on combustible liquids, such as oil, grease, and paint thinner. To ensure you get the most from your fire extinguisher, make sure to select the type that suits your particular welding environment. Additionally, all welding personnel must be trained on how to use the fire extinguisher.
AWS Online Welding Safety Course
These fire safety tips are easy to incorporate – whether you’re a professional or hobbyist welder. However, there are many other safety protocols that must be considered in order to safeguard property and personnel from fire hazards. To learn more about preventing welding fires, check out our online Welding Safety course. The AWS Safety in Welding course provides a comprehensive overview of welding safety and best practices in an accessible and engaging format. It is based on the ANSI Z49.1:2012 Safety in Welding Standard and includes a broad range of topics, including hazards, safety equipment, ventilation, welding in confined spaces, safety precautions, and safety specifications. Presented in 11, easy-to-digest modules, the AWS Safety in Welding course is equally accessible to students and established professionals who want to expand their knowledge base and core competencies.