Over a century of structural welding activities on the North American continent has not only lead to a development of efficiency and effectiveness of welding, but it has also lead to an increased awareness and more in-depth knowledge of dangers that accompany welding. In this article, closer attention will be paid to structural welding safety procedures and regulations in British Columbia, pertaining both to the safety of workers during the construction phase as well as to the safety and the structural integrity of the building once when all the works have been completed. Nota Bene: the intricacies, rules and guidelines are many (and this is still a massive understatement), take this as a (very) broad overview of those we considered most important to point out.
Rulebooks and guidelines define welders as people trained in and capable of welding ferrous and non-ferrous metals in all positions, using various structural welding processes. This definition is just slightly problematic because the legislature does not require having a certificate or a written proof of formal training to perform a job of a welder in British Columbia, meaning that the “trained” is redundant since, technically, people can be taken by their word only in this regard without any legal obstacles. However, a big majority of structural welding companies and welders by profession are certified by the Canadian Welding Bureau since it is taken to be as a sign of expertise among customers. The fact that having a written proof of expertise is not a must, does not mean that there are no guidelines for welding procedures. Regarding safety of workers in the construction phase, special attention is paid in these guidelines to fire safety in structural welding and cutting, obviously because exposure to and creation of high temperatures is the integral part of the process. All employers in the industry are expected to provide safe working conditions for their employees (such as not demand that they perform SMAW welding in rain, or while “sitting in a puddle”) as well as to provide safety training.
Structural welding safety guidelines
The guidelines for welders themselves can be formulated in a step-by-step pamphlet that shows the necessary hot work (an umbrella term for structural welding, cutting and other types of work that produce high temperatures) precautions. The workers are expected first to make sure that there are no inflammable materials in the close proximity of the area where work happens. They must ensure that all required safety and health equipment is available and properly used as well as that their own equipment is in proper working order. They are expected to check the surrounding air for specific gases and/or mixtures of those gases so as to avoid the creation of explosive mixture; to check who will provide help in case of an emergency (meaning firefighting and medical aid in case of fire and explosions); notify all the persons near the proposed hot work site that they are to stay away in order to avoid potential harm and be aware in advance of all the possible exits. These guidelines are there to ensure minimal bodily danger for workers and onlookers in the vicinity as well as minimal material damage in case of unforeseen dangers. However, they only relate to fire hazards, there is much more that could be written about the dangers of electricity, poisonous gasses and falling objects. This only serves to show how just one safety aspect and one stage of work has so many things to keep in mind safety-wise.
The regulations for buildings and structures themselves are much more universally applied and are more thoroughly regulated than those regarding construction work. These regulations usually address two chief concerns of builders and future owners or tenants; earthquake safety and fire safety. While it is hard to predict an exact occurrence of an earthquake, the fact that British Columbia annually experiences 500 small earthquakes on average means that earthquakes must be taken into account when planning buildings. The way the building will be affected by the earthquake will depend largely on the magnitude, depth of the earthquake, the type of soil and of course, the type of building.
To ensure maximum safety, British Columbia Building Code has been putting a great emphasis on ductility of buildings since the 1980’s. The current rules, dating back to 2006, state that the buildings must be designed to the “minimum level for life safety.” This seemingly vague formulation has some math behind it to clarify what is meant by “minimum level for life safety;” it means that the building most be constructed in such a way that it can survive the earthquake of magnitude that has only 2% chance of happening in the next 50 years after construction. This is the point where steel as a material is really useful because ductility is one of chief properties of steel meaning that weight-carrying beams will rather twist and band than snap in case of an earthquake. As far as fire safety is concerned, things are a bit different. In case of steel buildings, all European countries, USA and Canada demand fire resistant coating to be put on steel beams since steel loses some 50% of its strength at around 650 degrees Celsius.
During the construction phase, greater risks are tolerated by the British Columbia Building code than after completion, simply because potential material damage is smaller, the construction companies are expected to take necessary precautions and the workers are expected to have been trained how to handle the situation and evacuate the construction site. Another big reason why greater risks are tolerated is due to the simple fact that there is a lot of inflammable material around very strong heat sources. TIG welding can create temperatures over 3,600 degrees Celsius, and it is only natural that such structural welding activities might cause greater danger of fire. Some of the things that will always be required as obligatory precaution are fire warning systems for personnel, unobstructed access to fire hydrants and portable extinguishers, especially in the vicinity of combustible material. However, these are all only just tip of the iceberg. There is a hefty list of rules and precautions to be taken so as to avoid legal prosecution and safety hazards. After all, the British Columbia Building Code subscription for only one user does not cost more than 200 CAD just because.
Although many employed in the industry of structural welding would claim that some of the rules and regulations imposed are petty, unnecessary or wrong, it is worth saying that majority of these rules exist for a reason, that they have come to be after years of cumulative experience and that, when such high stakes as lives are at play, no existent precaution is redundant.
The Office of Public Safety (http://boabc.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/BOABC-Structural-Welding-Requirements-the-Building-Official-May-2015.pdf)
General Welding Safety https://webstore.ansi.org/safety_standards/welding_safety/