Hot work—which includes welding, cutting, grinding, soldering, blasting, brazing, heat-treating, thawing pipes, and roof applications—is responsible for an average of 22 deaths and 177 injuries in the U.S. each year. It is one of the world’s most dangerous occupations, and for good reason. Not only are welders exposed to intense heat, light, and fumes on the job, but it only takes a single spark to set off a deadly fire or explosion that could impact an entire plant, warehouse, or offshore operation.
Employers must put hot work safety first. Let’s take a look at how that can be done, and what happens when companies ignore safety regulations related to welding, cutting, and grinding.
Hot Work Includes Any “Spark-Producing Operation”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines hot work as “riveting, welding, flame cutting or other fire or spark-producing operation.” Hot work occurs in many industries, including construction, oil production, manufacturing, food processing, waste treatment, and fuel storage. It occurs on land and offshore. Some hot work even takes place underwater. In fact, underwater welding is recognized as one of the deadliest jobs on the planet.
Hot work is dangerous because it combines the three components that cause fires:
- Oxygen: It is present in the air all around us and may occur in higher concentrations in certain industries and workplaces.
- Fuel: This includes anything that can be ignited, such as construction materials, chemicals, solvents, gases, paint, paper, furnishings, rags, cardboard, and more.
- Ignition/Heat Source: This is often the hot work itself. When a source of heat directly or indirectly ignites a fuel, a fire will occur. Even a small spark could travel to a distant fuel source during welding, grinding, or other hot work.
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), hot work was associated with an average of 4,630 structure fires in the U.S. between 2013 and 2017. 57% of these fires occurred at non-residential properties, and they caused an average of $355 million in damage.
When Is Hot Work Most Dangerous?
Hot work is most dangerous when performed in certain environments that magnify its inherent risks. Take underwater welding, for example. The welder is surrounded by water; a single mishap could not only put them at risk of being harmed in an underwater explosion, but they could drown. The same principle applies to hot work performed in confined spaces or areas where volatile substances (and prime ignition sources) are present.
In March 2014, two Boston firefighters lost their lives in a fire caused by unsafe hot work. In this case, workers were performing welding in an area where high winds and combustible material were present. In response to the tragedy, the City of Boston’s Inspectional Service Division partnered with the Boston Fire Department to create a training and certification program. Boston has since passed an ordinance requiring individuals to get safety certificates prior to performing hot work.
In November 2015, a welder was killed in an explosion at a South Dakota soybean plant as he attempted to install a catwalk between two storage tanks containing soapstock. As he got to work, welding sparks dropped near the open vent at the top of one of the tanks. The flammable soapstock vapors ignited, blowing the 39-year-old worker, the partially completed catwalk, and the domed top off the tank.
Facilities like the soybean processing plant are required by OHSA to implement hot work programs, which assess and address the hazards posed by welding, cutting, and other hot work. They must also obtain hot work permits before work can begin. Although the soybean processing plant had a hot work program in place, an evaluation of the dangers posed by welding atop the soapstock tank was not completed and no hot work permit was obtained. No steps were taken to eliminate the fire and explosion risks posed by the flammable vapors.
The welder was not informed of the potential danger, and he lost his life as a result.
The Port of Beirut Explosion: August 4, 2020
The worst hot work-related event in recent years occurred on August 4, 2020, at the Port of Beirut in Lebanon, where the Lebanese government was storing approximately 1.1 kilotons of ammonium nitrate it had confiscated from Rhosus, an abandoned cargo ship, back in 2014.
According to reports from the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International (LBCI), welders were working on a door at the warehouse when a fire ignited. This led to two explosions, the first of which had a force of about 1.5 to 2.5 tons of TNT. About 33 to 35 seconds later, a second explosion occurred, even more forceful than the first.
The blast was so powerful that it shook the entire country of Lebanon. It was felt by people in Turkey, Israel, Syria, and Jordan. It registered at 3.3 to 4.5 on the Richter scale and was heard more than 150 miles away. A section of shoreline was destroyed, and the blast left behind a crater 407 feet wide and 141 feet deep.
At least 218 people lost their lives, more than 7,000 were injured, and 300,000 people were left homeless as a result of the Port of Beirut explosion. The incident caused an estimated $15 billion in damage. The worst part?
All of this destruction could be traced back to a single welding operation. It could have been prevented had the ammonium nitrate been stored properly and the welders been aware of the risk.
Preventing Hot Work Fires & Explosions
Hot work is inherently dangerous. This does not mean, however, that accidents are unavoidable. They can be prevented when employers take the necessary precautions to maintain safe worksites, train workers, provide the right gear, and implement safety practices that address the specific hazards that hot work is known to present. Hot work accidents like the Port of Beirut explosion happen when safety standards are glossed over or ignored completely.
The key to preventing fires and explosions caused by unsafe hot work is simple: planning.
The NFPA recommends a process called “Recognize, Evaluate, and Control” to reduce hot work hazards. First, you recognize whether fire risks exist in the first place. Then, you evaluate what hazards are present, particularly fuel sources like flammable or combustible materials. Finally, you control the situation by minimizing or eliminating any hazards that have been identified. If the hazards are too great or cannot be minimized or eliminated, an alternative to hot work should be found.
Companies and facilities where hot work is to be performed must have special programs in place to address such activities. These hot work programs should implement the recognition, evaluation, and control of hazards before any work is performed. A hot work permit must also be issued before work begins. There’s more: a fire can start even after hot work is complete. NFPA 51B requires a fire watchperson to remain on site for at least 60 minutes or possibly longer depending on the conditions.
In addition to having hot work programs in place, companies must implement them and make sure that any onsite subcontractors are aware of potential risks. In the incident at the soybean plant, the facility did not ensure the welder was informed of the risk. They did not carry out their hot work program and obtain a permit as the situation required. This brings to light a widespread issue related to plant owners and operators who assume subcontractors are all-knowing experts on hot work and related hazards.
The truth is this: a seasoned welder may understand the process of welding and the risks that it presents, but they will have limited information when working at a facility that is foreign to them. They will not have knowledge of the facility’s unique equipment, processes, and hazards. Plants, warehouses, and other industrial facilities need to do more to protect subcontractors and employees alike from the hazards that hot work can pose. Until they do, every person who performs hot work or is employed at a facility where this occurs will be in danger. And so will the environment and nearby communities.