Whether it’s a construction, repair or shipbuilding application, 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.
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.
Welding challenges in confined spaces
While many jobsites may have some difficult work areas, not all of them meet the definition of a confined space under Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations. OSHA outlines specific safety and protection requirements for operators who are welding, cutting or heating in a confined space. In Standard 1926.1202, OSHA 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.
In addition to following OSHA guidelines, do not use AC weld output in damp, wet or confined spaces, or if there is a danger of falling.
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 challenges for welding. Operators on construction jobsites often find themselves a long distance from the welding power source, working in spots that must be reached by ladder or scaffolding. Some of these same applications may require operators 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 operators are unable to carry all of the necessary equipment to the spot of the weld or get their equipment into a small space, this 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.
Welding gear for confined spaces
Choosing 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.
Operators 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. Miller® X-Mode™ technology electromagnetically senses the weld to continuously detect the arc — even if the sensors are blocked. And while it’s not safety equipment, having a welding gun with an adjustable neck can also help operators get into a position with the best access to the weld joint.
In some tight spaces, a traditional welding helmet may not offer enough access to the workpiece. Weld masks are an alternative, allowing access to tight spaces while maintaining eye and head protection, and can be up to 40% lighter than a standard auto-darkening helmet. Weld masks are portable and easy to use, even in industrial welding applications. Half mask respirators can also fit easily underneath a weld mask.
Easily change weld parameters and processes
On some jobsites, the operator may be working hundreds of feet from the welding power source. As a result, he or she 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 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 operators can maximize arc-on time, weld quality and jobsite safety. ArcReach® technology from Miller Electric Mfg. LLC provides complete control at the weld joint without the need for a control cable, allowing operators 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 operators can significantly improve productivity while achieving high weld quality.
And with the XMT 350 FieldPro system with Polarity Reversing, operators 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 operators 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 even the smallest spaces. For example, an 8-inch wire feeder is typically much smaller and lighter than a 12-inch feeder, making it a better fit for welding in hard-to-reach spaces.
Weld fume management
Managing weld fume for OSHA compliance is a concern in every welding application, but it’s especially important when operators 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 operators and employers still want to manage and remove 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. Keep in mind that it may require a combination of several approaches to best manage weld fume, depending on the space and application. Two of the steps in the hierarchy are:
- 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 keep in mind they are heavier and bulkier than standard welding guns. When it’s not possible to use a fume extraction gun, there are mobile source capture systems that can be placed in or near welding areas.
- Respiratory protection options should be implemented when effective engineering controls are not feasible, or while they are being instituted, pursuant to OSHA standard 29 CFR 2910.134. 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 all-day comfort.
Be sure to contact an industrial hygienist and check all safety guidelines for the space and application, to ensure that the chosen solutions meet the necessary requirements.
Improve welding safety and efficiency
Welding in confined spaces or in areas that are hard to reach on the jobsite can create additional challenges for operators.
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 operators who weld in these difficult environments.