Caswell: A hazardous profession |

Caswell: A hazardous profession

It all starts out with a project. Someone needs an ornamental center piece, ornate railing, or something as simple as a repair. They swing by my shop with a need for some form of metal fabrication and it never fails: As soon as I finish the weld or pull the object out of the forge, the visitor inevitably has to touch the recently molten piece of metal.

It’s not that people are stupid, but they are curious about the ability to bond and shape such a hard material. Thus they feel inclined to touch and feel what has just been created. I’m not going to say I’ve never pulled things from the forge, watched them cool from a glowing yellow to a dark gray and absentmindedly grabbed the wrong end. At 700° F, the metal is the same color as it is at room temperature, so it’s an understandable mistake. But aside from that there are a lot of dangers involved in the metal working process

There are small hazards that exist, and wearing the right gear helps – but that doesn’t necessarily keep you from harm’s way. “Berries” – BB-sized pieces of molten metal that expel from the weld – often find their way through chinks in the armor, sliding down the neck, slipping into the glove or landing in your ear. These rare occurrences often result in a rapid removal of the clothing or item that is holding the berry hostage against the skin. Then there is the metal sliver, almost impossible to see, but when one sticks into you, you know it, and you will dedicate whatever time necessary to locate and remove this misery inducing no-see-um.

The weight of the material is a contributing factor as well. Beams, posts and railing sections can weigh from 40 to 400 pounds without “looking” that heavy. Working in a shop a couple years back, a co-worker didn’t realize how heavy the tube steel was and went to move it off the bench, only to drop all 250 pounds right on my foot. I was wearing steel-toed boots at the time, but if I hadn’t been, my foot would have looked about as flat as Kansas.

Slag – a mixture of molten metal, oxygen and impurities, is a monster of its own. Slag must be removed from welds and torch cuts quickly before it hardens and adheres to the surface. When removing very hot material with a hammer, it is important to avoid all contact with the skin. Unfortunately, I once had a molten piece the size of a dime slip down the collar of my jacket and come to a rest right on the divot in my shoulder. I couldn’t get it out immediately, and the resulting crater was a reminder to button up the jacket around my neck.

Sunburn is another rare occurrence. Remember when you were a kid and your parents told you never to look at the arc from the weld? There is a VERY good reason for this. In high school welding class, I was working on a project. We all had our own welding bays and I was working on a unique project, cutting and fitting an ornamental wall hanging, while everyone around me was burning rod (practicing their arc welding).

I was cutting pieces and clamping everything together, which I didn’t need a hood for. At the end of the class, my eyes started to feel really tired and irritated, and when I went to close my eyes that night, it felt like someone had traded my eyelids for sandpaper. I was awake all night, tears streaming down my face, eyes propped open to avoid the searing pain and a damp towel draped over my head. I must have looked like an alcoholic the next morning when I went to class, eyes all dark from lack of sleep and blood-shot from the continuous crying.

Then there are the grinding sparks, the dust particulates, the noise, the inability to see (when the welding hood is down), the use of high voltage, the use of torches that can melt steel, the possibility of electrocution, and the list goes on and on.

As with most labor-intensive jobs, there are a lot of hazards associated with welding and metal fabrication. But at the end of the day, when you can look over what has been created and feel a sense of accomplishment and meaning, isn’t that what life is all about?

Adam Caswell is owner of Liquid Metalworks, a metal-working shop in Dillon –

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