Why Is Underwater Welding So Dangerous?

Underwater welding is a specialized type of welding that requires extensive training and unique skills. Underwater welders frequently work on offshore oil rigs and offshore pipelines when they need repair. While the work can be very lucrative, it is arguably the most dangerous job in the country.

According to one study, underwater welders have the highest fatality rate of any occupation. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track fatality rates of underwater welders as its group, estimates in the industry put the figure at 15%.

For comparison, other highly dangerous jobs such as loggers and fishermen have fatality rates of below 0.2%. That means underwater welders are more than 75 times as likely to die on the job as some of America’s most dangerous occupations.

Here, we will explore the risks and dangers associated with underwater welding and the measures welders can take to ensure their safety.

Underwater Welding Hazards

Underwater welders face constant risks due to operating dangerous equipment in dark places. Their injuries often lead to long-term health problems and even death.

Typical hazards of this occupation include:

1. Electric Shock

Electrocution is the biggest threat to underwater welders. Special waterproof equipment must be used for all underwater welding jobs. All equipment must be properly tested and insulated before use.

2. Explosions

Gas pockets created by the formation of hydrogen and oxygen pose a huge risk to underwater welders. If ignited, these pockets can result in lethal explosions.

Explosion Safety Rules

  • Look for any parts of the work area that could trap gases overhead. If needed, use a vent tube to direct gases to the surface.
  • Weld from the highest to the lowest point if possible.
  • Electrodes that exceed 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit in a gaseous environment may explode if a spark occurs.
  • Thick material: Work from outside and around the circumference. Pull away the electrode every few seconds and make a brush action. You may want to allow water to enter the weld to keep the temperature down, though this reduces its quality.
  • If working on or above riverbeds, remember that mud may already have explosive methane gas trapped within it. And a riverbed with cows nearby? Forget about it.

3. Decompression illness. 

Since many underwater welders work hundreds of feet beneath the surface, they are subjected to dangerous pressure changes. Decompression illness is caused by a reduction in the ambient pressure surrounding the body.

This results in two potential health risks: decompression sickness and arterial gas embolism. Decompression sickness is created by bubbles growing in tissue and causing local damage. Arterial gas embolism is due to bubbles traveling through the arteries and damaging tissue by blocking blood flow.

4. Drowning. 

Differential pressure can lead to drowning incidents, and it’s nearly undetectable until it’s too late to escape. This phenomenon occurs when two bodies of water, each with a different level, intersect.

The pressure difference can quickly amount to hundreds of pounds per square inch, trapping and drowning the diver. Diving gear failures, such as leaking masks, hoses, or oxygen tanks, can also lead to drowning.

Above all, don’t panic. Divers can make a dangerous situation lethal by overthinking and not following the surface team’s direction. Keep a calm head and slow your breathing as much as possible.

If your air supply is cut off through the umbilicals, you may switch to your emergency SCUBA supply tank. Check your helmet for malfunctions. If you’re far below the surface, ascend at a safe rate.

5. Freezing

As a rule of thumb, the deeper the descent, the colder it gets. If water penetrates your skin, your body temperature will quickly drop in a cold environment. This can lead to respiratory problems, hypothermia, and death.

In addition to highly insulated scuba equipment, welder divers should check for any small tears in their dry suit and gloves.

In certain cases, saturation divers will use helium in their environment to reduce the chances of decompression sickness. Because of helium’s thermal properties, divers must constantly monitor their temperature after absorbing large amounts of helium into their bloodstream. Hypothermia can onset in a matter of minutes.

6. Ear, Lung, and Nose Damage

Spending a lot of time in high-pressure waters can lead to long-term ear, lung, and nose damage.

7. Hypothermia

Maritime workers may be so focused on the job they are performing that they ignore the warning signs of hypothermia. Divers working on large projects such as hull repair or pipe maintenance must be given adequate breaks and stay in regular contact with crews on the surface.

8. Marine Life

However, light from welding can attract plankton, and plankton attract fish. Though marine life are not a major cause of underwater welding injuries, they can get in the way of the welder-diver’s work and cause delays. Increased project time means increased risk.

Underwater welders should explore their work area beforehand to clear away any obstacles, including fish.

The future of underwater welding, and is it worth it?

With advancing technologies in robotic capabilities, advancements are being made to protect underwater welders. Despite what the future may hold, today, underwater welders help maintain the most integral components of many industries worldwide.

Until highly advanced robots can perform intricate tasks with the skill of a human, underwater divers will continue to be a necessity for companies worldwide. It is a physically and mentally challenging job, though for what it creates in stress, it makes up for the pride of maintaining the technologies on which the world relies today.

While it’s not one of the best careers in terms of working conditions and requirements, it is an excellent job for those who wish to make a high salary quickly. To put things into perspective, in the U.S., an entry-level salary for an underwater welder is roughly $32,000 a year, rising to around $151,000 for the best of the best in the field.

To reduce the likelihood of a fatal accident, underwater welders must be extremely cognizant of the dangers they face and be certain to follow safety protocol before and while performing any underwater welding job.