Underwater welding, also referred to as wet welding, is one of the most challenging jobs in the metals fabricating world. It requires the worker to be good at two different occupations, welding and diving. Not only does an underwater welder have to lay down quality welds on a variety of metals, but they have to do it while swimming in deep waters.
Undoubtedly, risks and dangers are amplified underwater. A welder faces restriction in his movements and is constantly subjected to limited visibility and hearing. Adding to the challenge, under water, a welder’s arc tends to be inclined or unstable, requiring an experienced welder to do the job properly. In addition to extensive welding experience, every wet welder needs to take a safety course specific to the challenges experienced working under water.
But even with years of training and practice, the perils of underwater welding remain. For those still interested in embarking on a career below the sea, it’s important to understand those dangers and how to avoid them.
Electrocution is the biggest threat to an underwater welder. And that’s because water has very low resistivity and conducts electricity when it comes in contact with it.
Underwater welders, however, are protected by a layer of bubbles formed by the flux of the electrode that shields the electricity from the surrounding water. While the arc might seem like the obvious area to be concerned about, welders also need to be wary of the equipment itself. If a wire has a cut or break in it, contact with the water could generate an electric current.
Welders, therefore, should only go underwater after they have thoroughly inspected their equipment. Usage of direct current instead of alternating current also reduces the potential for danger to a great degree.
While electrocution is perhaps the greatest fear surrounding the profession, there is only one recorded case of a worker who died while welding underwater. This negates the common belief that underwater welding can be fatal. No matter how reassuring the statistics, however, welders must still take proper care while welding underwater.
Anyone who has swam underwater and exhaled has noticed the bubbles that are created. Similarly, bubbles are created underwater while welding due to the immense expulsion of the welding gases that are used, such as hydrogen and oxygen. Although they seem harmless, the bubbles are made of gases that can catch fire if they get too close to any welding sparks. Additionally, if these bubbles become trapped at any time during the welding process, they can blast out and even injure a welder.
Bubbles can also pose visibility issues around the welder and at the weld location itself. Therefore, underwater welders should weld from top to bottom to prevent these bubbles from gathering. Furthermore, as an electrode’s temperature rises, even more bubbles are created. A good practice is to pull the electrode away every few seconds to allow it to cool down. Keep in mind, however, that this practice can affect the quality of the weld.
Underwater welders also hear sounds when these bubbles burst whilst underwater, which can startle a welder if they’re not familiar with the phenomenon. Startle and welding never go together.
When underwater welders go from a high-pressure area to a low-pressure area, they are subject to decompression and decompression sickness, sometimes referred to as “the bends.” Therefore, when an underwater welder goes into the water, it’s important to dive in slowly so that the body’s pressure decreases gradually, not abruptly. Special suits should also be worn that are designed to monitor the body’s pressure. The concern is that nitrogen in the air supply can form bubbles in the bloodstream that can cause fatigue and pain in the muscles and joints.
While decompression can typically be treated with oxygen followed by recompression in a hyperbaric chamber, permanent long-term injury is possible if not quickly treated.
Additional issues related to the pressure underwater welders experience as the depth of the water increases include hearing impairment. High pressures can damage divers’ ears and make them liable to temporary or permanent hearing losses. Welders should also cover their ears when underwater to further protect them from injury.
Lungs are also affected by this pressure, causing some divers to suffer from breathing complications. Underwater welders, therefore, should properly wear masks during the job that help maintain proper pressure from the air coming from the oxygen tank.
When a welder stays underwater for long periods of time, the chance of getting hypothermia increases. This chance increases the deeper they dive as the temperatures below sea level decrease with depth. Hypothermia can cause short-term side effects, such as confusion, fatigue and a reduction in dexterity, but it can also cause long-term effects, such as pneumonia and heart arrhythmias. Therefore, an underwater welder needs to be prepared for this loss in temperature as it can impart serious risks.
Well-insulated rubber suits are recommended when going into cold or deep waters. It’s also recommended to consult with a professional diver that can demonstrate breathing exercises to do while in extreme conditions. Finally, it can’t be understated how important it is to stay calm while working under cold, dark conditions, which is common for underwater welders.
Staying calm is always recommended no matter what activity or task is taking place under water. In terms of the potential for drowning, most might assume novice swimming skills when, in fact, equipment should be the focus. As an example, if a diver is several hundred feet below the water’s surface and the oxygen tank stops working for some reason, there often wouldn’t be enough time for the diver to get back to the surface of the water for air. To combat these concerns, underwater welders are given specific training about how to find buoyancy under the water’s surface in order to quickly rise upward.
Welders can also become tangled in instruments below the water. Every welder should, therefore, thoroughly examine their equipment before going underwater to reduce the chance of getting tangled in componentry.
Risks vs. rewards
Knowing these risks, one might wonder why a welder would choose the career path of wet welding. Unsurprisingly, the high salary of an underwater welder is probably the
biggest factor driving someone to choose the profession. Among all types of welding careers, an underwater welder easily earns the most.
In addition to the high wages, underwater welding is in demand across a range of industries, placing welders on assignment in exciting places around the world. It should be noted that the amount paid for a particular job depends on the conditions and location under which the welder has to work.
It’s also important to take into consideration that while the pay may be good and the travel opportunities exciting, the job of an underwater welder comes with a price. It requires special training and often expensive courses on both welding and diving. Additional safety training is also required that covers survival techniques and how to respond to extreme conditions. Specialized safety equipment like insulated diving suits and respirators is also required.
No doubt, welding far below the water’s surface requires skills that are hard to establish. Once those hurdles have been overcome, however, an exciting, lucrative career can follow.