Recently we had a health and safety incident occur at HERA. While thankfully not catastrophic, we think it’s important to share our lessons learnt so our members can avoid similar experience in the future.
A team member in our welding team injured their eye during work hours at HERA House. Our facilities include offices and a laboratory/workshop.
We use the lab to carry out important R&D and training which is focused on outcomes that better future proof our industry. It includes a non-destructive training area, metallography and welding bay.
The welding bay itself is used on a case-by-case basis by our experienced and qualified welding team. It includes a number of advanced and conventional power source welding processes, and is the scene in which our recent health and safety incident occurred.
Background into our Health and Safety (H&S) understanding
At HERA we maintain a robust H&S and Quality Assurance (QA) system with an onsite H&S officer and regular H&S meetings.
Our welding team is well aware of hazards associated with welding and are familiar with the regulations and best practice in welding guidelines such as the Department of Labour Health and Safety in welding and WTIA TN7.
We know that some of the welding hazards to eyes can be:
- burns to the eye or body due to the welding arc (high intensity infrared (IR) and ultraviolet (UV) energy from welding arc),
- fume and foreign matter such as high velocity particles, and
- falling dust.
To mitigate such risks, eye protection is part of our PPE requirements which includes welding helmets with a suitable arc flash filter.
The Department of Labour Guideline (page 16) states that eye protection may be worn under a welding helmet for additional protection. And, that staff must address known hazards and stop work if their work conditions become unsafe.
The events leading up to the eye injury
One of our welding team members was performing a series of welding trials. He was setting up test pieces and fabricating samples for a welding inspection course using MMAW. The preparation of samples required good illumination.
At the time he was wearing protective safety glasses under a welding helmet with an automatic filter that was slightly tinted. He also wore a welding coat, welding gloves and respirator.
While he was positioning himself to start a fillet weld in the PF position, he lifted his helmet to better position himself before initiating the welding sequence. Before he went to lower his helmet, the electrode accidentally struck the edge of the workpiece and gave his left eye an arc flash.
Following this, he initially adjusted to the lighting conditions and experienced no major discomfort. Opting to continue his work for the rest of Friday afternoon. He had experienced this in the past and assumed the discomfort experienced would eventually go away.
However, the following day he felt some irritation in his eye, and by Sunday it was apparent the discomfort was persisting. He went to a GP who discovered a foreign body in his eye and referred him to a specialist.
The specialist found a rounded non-metallic particle, concluding it was a small piece of slag that had got past his safety glasses during the arc flash.
The matter was reported to our H&S committee on Monday, and investigations were launched resulting in a root cause analysis and corrective actions.
Root causes of the incident
During MMAW welding, the power-source can’t be turned off which means the electrode remains live, causing a potential hazard. Other welding processes such as GMAW and FCAW have a lower risk of accidental arc flash as they have a trigger on the welding gun and the electrode only becomes live when the trigger is activated.
The welding helmet was lifted up to allow sufficient vision to setup a correct body position to the workpiece. The operator used a welding helmet with a digital lens auto control (auto darkening), however the lens is tinted in a ‘no welding’ mode.
There was operator error in managing movements resulting in the electrode striking the sample. This created an arc while the welding helmet was lifted up (due to the low light conditions in the workshop).
The operator confirmed his welding helmet was up at the time the arc was struck. This meant he was exposed to the arc without helmet eye protection. This resulted in a foreign body entering his eye, despite the fact he wore eye glasses in accordance with AS 1337.
The “Bolle” safety glasses were designed to stop foreign bodies, so there is potential they weren’t fitted properly. A second layer of eye protection (screen) could have prevented this, and is recommended for operations like welding and grinding (of which the operator was equipped with).
Light conditions at the welding bay were checked using a luxometer. The illuminance measured at the worktable with the light on was approximately 150 lx. It’s lower than recommended in the welding inspection standard AS/NZS ISO 17637 for the type of work performed. The standard recommends increasing illuminance to 500 lx if tinted protective glasses are used. It is understood that it also applies to a tinted glass in a welding helmet.
It’s clear that the hazards of low light, fogging and need for prescription glasses may have been contributing factors. While the safety glasses’ lens are bi-focal marketed as an option to prescription lenses, they are not the equivalent of prescription lenses from an optometrist. The manufacturer claims the glasses have an “anti-fogging coating’.
The employee didn’t report the incident as there was no immediate discomfort. Medical care was only sought two days later when the condition worsened.
Corrective actions to be taken
Employees using this facility are to have regular toolbox meetings prior to work programs involving the use of the MMAW process. This will involve reminding each other of these hazards and routinely observing each other for safe operating.
All staff are to be made aware of their requirements to report an injury immediately to their manager, the Health, Safety and Environment Officer and CEO.
Managers are to ensure that staff don’t return to work prior to the date that a medical certificate confirms they’d be fit for work.
HERA is to purchase prescription glasses for the operator in question.
HERA is to install a floodlight to be used for welding operations in the workshop, and all welding operations will be performed with this additional lighting on.
All welding operations (including welding setup) with a power source on will be performed with two layers of eye protection where ever practical. Meaning safety glasses and a closed welding helmet.
All welding helmets used by operators will have a digital lens auto control. Future acquisition of welding helmets will consider state of the art equipment.
Other staff and visitors in the immediate vicinity can have had-held helmets with welding grade safety glasses on.
HERA is to investigate an external air source to reduce condensation. Staff are to be aware of these hazards and stop work if their visibility is impaired.