Whether it is construction, repair or shipbuilding, it’s not unusual for welders to find themselves in hard-to-reach or confined spaces to complete a job. The challenge of welding in tight spaces not only impacts welder safety and comfort – it can also significantly affect productivity and weld quality.
Welding equipment manufacturers are evolving and developing innovative technologies to help improve the safety, comfort and efficiency of welders in these difficult jobsite environments, allowing them to focus on producing quality welds every time.
While many jobsites may have some difficult work areas, not all of them meet the definition of a confined space under OSHA regulations. OSHA outlines specific safety and protection requirements for operators who are welding, cutting or heating in a confined space. OSHA Standard 1926.1202 defines a confined space as:
- Being large enough that an employee can bodily enter it.
- Having limited or restricted means for entry and exit.
- One that is not designed for continuous employee occupancy.
Many tight or difficult-to-reach spaces that welders must work in don’t fall under the confined space standard, but these areas can still pose similar welding challenges. Welders on construction jobsites often find themselves working in spots that must be reached by ladder or scaffolding. Some of these same applications may require welders to crawl into or through small spaces to get to the weld.
When it’s harder for welders to get into a comfortable position or use proper technique, it can be more difficult to produce high-quality welds. If welders are unable to carry all of the necessary equipment to the spot of the weld or get their equipment into a small space, it can also negatively impact quality and productivity.
Addressing these challenges with the right solutions can help improve jobsite safety in addition to quality and productivity.
The right welding helmet and personal protective equipment (PPE) solutions not only help optimize safety and efficiency in difficult or smaller spaces on the jobsite, they can also provide solutions to common problems with welding in these environments.
In low-light environments where it may be hard to see the work, a welding helmet with the right lens and technology can improve visibility by allowing a greater range of colors to come through the lens – giving welders a clearer view of the weld puddle and surrounding workpiece. An attachable helmet lighting accessory can also help welders better see their work. Available options include LED lights that are adjustable, lightweight and comfortable to wear all day.
Welders may sometimes have to weld at an odd angle or around a corner in a small space. In these situations, the auto-darkening sensors on a welding helmet may not be exposed to the welding arc. However, the Miller X-Mode technology electromagnetically senses the weld to continuously detect the arc – even if the sensors are blocked.
In some tight spaces, a traditional welding helmet may not offer enough access to the workpiece. Welding masks are an alternative, allowing access to tight spaces while maintaining eye and head protection, and they can be up to 40 percent lighter than a standard auto-darkening helmet. Welding masks are portable and easy to use, even in industrial welding applications.
On some jobsites, welders must work hundreds of feet from the welding power source. As a result, they must stop welding and walk back to the machine every time parameter or process changes are needed. When welding in small spaces, welders may have to crawl on their hands and knees, up and down ladders, or through manholes or narrow pathways to get to the power source.
This lost time adds up, totaling significant labor costs that could be better spent on productive tasks. Repeated trips to the power source also increase the opportunity for safety risks such as slips, trips and falls.
Remote control welding technologies help minimize the time spent walking – or crawling and climbing – to and from the power source, so welders can maximize arc-on time, weld quality and jobsite safety. Miller’s ArcReach technology provides complete control at the weld joint without the need for a control cable, allowing welders to easily adjust parameters and processes at the spot of the weld using the wire feeder or the remote.
Pairing the XMT 350 FieldPro system with an ArcReach Smart Feeder delivers capabilities for advanced processes such as pulsed MIG and Regulated Metal Deposition (RMD) on the jobsite, so even in tight spaces welders can significantly improve productivity while achieving high weld quality.
And, with the XMT 350 FieldPro system with polarity reversing, welders can switch parameters and welding polarity when TIG and stick welding with the push of a button at the remote – so there is no need to leave the space where they are welding. In applications where welders must frequently switch between TIG and stick welding, such as boiler construction or repair, this technology improves safety and can save hours per day.
When these capabilities are available in compact, portable wire feeders and stick/TIG remotes, welders can bring the accessories into the smallest spaces. For example, an 8-in. wire feeder is typically much smaller and lighter than a 12-in. feeder, making it a better fit for welding in hard-to-reach spaces.
Managing weld fume is a concern in every welding application, but it’s especially important when welders are working in tight or small spaces. Areas that meet OSHA’s definition of a confined space require either general mechanical or local exhaust ventilation meeting the requirements of section 1926.353(a).
Other spaces may not meet the definition of a confined space, but welders and employers still want protection against and removal of as much fume as possible from the welder’s vicinity. OSHA’s Hierarchy of Controls outlines steps for weld fume management to help companies improve compliance. It may require a combination of several approaches to best manage weld fume, depending on the space and application. Steps in the hierarchy include:
- Engineering controls, such as process enclosure, general ventilation and local exhaust ventilation, which is often referred to as source capture. Local exhaust ventilation includes portable and stationary fume extractors, extraction arms with centralized collectors and fume extraction guns. Fume extraction guns can be a good option in smaller spaces because they capture fume directly at the source, but they are heavier and bulkier than standard welding guns. When it’s not possible to use a fume extraction gun, mobile source capture systems can be placed in or near welding areas.
- Respiratory protection options, which can be used alone or in combination with engineered solutions. A disposable mask is the most basic solution, and many have a low-profile design to fit under a welding helmet. Half masks with replaceable filters are another option that can fit comfortably under most welding helmets. Powered air purifying respirators, or PAPRs, are portable, self-contained solutions designed for unrestricted movement and comfort.
All safety guidelines for the space and application should be followed to ensure the chosen solutions meet the necessary requirements.
Welding in confined spaces or in areas that are hard to reach on the jobsite can create additional challenges for welders. A comfortable welder is often a better, more efficient welder. Choosing the right technologies and welding accessories can help improve compliance, comfort and productivity for welders who work in these difficult environments.