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Equipment Hub: The Great Jacket Pocket Fire (and other welding issues)

Andy Overbay for Progressive Dairy Published on 07 February 2020

They say experience is the best teacher, but is it? How many of you would recognize a rattlesnake if you encountered one? If experience is the best teacher, the only way you would know to leave that rascal alone would be to let it bite you, but that isn’t too wise, is it?

The best way to learn can be to heed the warnings and advice of those who have been there and done that. Just like that rattlesnake, your welder might bite you in a way from which you don’t recover, at least not fully.

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The most obvious safety tip in welding is to protect your eyesight. Advances in welding hood technology have really improved safety and efficiency with the availability of the auto-darkening lens. Lenses come in different sizes, so you may need to try lenses to see which is best for you. My father wore bifocal glasses, so the smaller lens models didn’t afford him enough range to adjust his vision to see his work.

Auto-darkening lenses work only if the batteries that power them are in good working order. Check your batteries often and replace them if you have any doubt they may be old, especially if you weld only on occasion.

Being old school, my dad liked his old flip-up, flip-down hood, but an auto-darkening lens is a great way to teach your young welding apprentice.

The next issue which also comes to mind with welding is heat. Welding wear is not only a good investment, it may save you some serious injury downtime. Protecting your hands is easy enough to understand, and a good pair of welding gloves is fairly inexpensive, but do not underestimate the need to protect the rest of your body as well.

Not only do welders put off a great deal of heat, they also generate a great deal of UV light. One of the worst “sunburns” I ever saw wasn’t a sunburn at all. My dad was rebuilding a silo unloader and decided that stainless steel would really make the job last. Of course, the steel not only took more heat to weld, it held more heat as well.

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It was the middle of summer and, after a couple of hours of welding almost nonstop, Dad’s unprotected arms were cooked to the point he almost had to be hospitalized. Just like a sunburn, the effects of exposure to long periods of welding creep up on you and, by the time you realize the error, it is way too late, folks.

Now would be a good time to go back to the first paragraph of this article and review the rattlesnake reference. Invest in a good welding jacket and wear it.

One more rattlesnake reference: While it’s winter now, and you may not be welding in your shirt-sleeves, your jacket of choice might also be flammable. Catching your jacket on fire will get your attention. (And no, neither Dad nor I ever melted a jacket to us. I would remember that.)

However, we do have a similar story. Dad had been welding one cold winter day and, as was our custom, we gathered at Mom and Dad’s house for lunch. As we were finishing our meal, I remarked that I smelled something getting hot. We looked around the room, seeing nothing, when all of a sudden a nice round hole appeared on the pocket of Dad’s jacket and a nice little flame shot out.

Dad was covered up nicely that day, but he wore glasses and carried a paper towel or two in his right jacket pocket every day to clean his glasses (as he only needed them to see anything at all). Apparently, a few of the sparks from his welding or grinding had found their way into his jacket pocket – so few that they didn’t set the towels on fire right away. They smoldered all through lunch until they got enough air to break out.

A house fire from welding … not exactly the causation one would expect, but it certainly could have happened. We often talked about how lucky we were that “The Great Jacket Pocket Fire” happened during lunch when it could have easily happened after supper, setting an entire rack of coats on fire before anyone was aware.

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Finally, one safety issue more of us should pay attention to, especially this time of year, is the need to have your shop or enclosed area where you are welding properly ventilated. Welding produces smoke and gases that can adversely affect your breathing and, like the sunburn issue, those effects may not manifest themselves until it is too late to correct the situation.

Again, technology has stepped in and helped in this area. Welding fume hoods and “smoke eaters” are not cheap, but if you weld a lot in the shop during the winter with the doors tightly shut, I would encourage you make the investment. Like a range hood in your home or in a restaurant, smoke eaters pull in the fumes produced from your welding and catch particles in the filter system. Pretty neat. Of course, if you simply do not weld enough to warrant a filter system, opening a door and using a fan to help extract the smoke and fumes is never a bad idea.

Just remember, you are welding because you are building or rebuilding something you need. In doing so, be sure you are around to use it for a long, long time.  end mark

Andrew Overbay holds a Ph.D. in ag education and has more than 40 years of hands-on dairy and farming experience.

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