HDPE Pipe Welding Safety Talk
Many industries are increasingly using HDPE pipe to replace concrete and steel mainlines because it is more flexible, ductile, and highly impermeable. With this increasing demand, the need for welding sections of HDPE together on construction sites has increased, and many companies are seeing an unfortunate rise in HDPE welding injuries. Let’s take a closer look at HDPE welding and consider some best practices for preventing injuries while working with it on the job site.
What Is HDPE Welding?
HDPE pipe is a high-density polyethylene thermoplastic pipe. The process of joining or welding sections of HDPE together is often referred to as fusion. There are specific machines available for three basic kinds of fusion:
For our purposes today we will focus on HDPE butt fusion/welding. The process of butt fusing HDPE is melting two sections into one under pressure. After placing sections of HDPE pipe to be fused into the welding machine, a cutting head is used to prepare the face of both sections. The cutting or shaving of the joint surfaces ensures that they are both square and level to allow maximum surface area contact between them. Next, the joint faces of the pipe are pressed against a heating element or plate to heat them up to 400 degrees F depending on the size of the pipe. Once the joint faces are heated correctly, the heating element is removed and the joint sections are pressed together forcefully according to a prescribed pressure and period of time for fusing.
Once the material cools, the pipe sections are now bonded together and the joint has sealed itself inside and out.
What Are The Hazards Of HDPE Welding?
HDPE welding is a simple process however there are many different kinds of machines on the market for workers to use depending on the work at hand. Couple this with the hazardous work on the construction site and suddenly there are many safety hazards to be aware of.
Impact And Crush Accidents
Most of the time HDPE pipe is being joined to handle the distribution of liquids or gasses in a large volume. Picture large sections of HDPE pipe being joined together on a large scale for the water mains in a new residential development or replacing the water mains in your neighborhood. This can translate into sections of HDPE being joined together weighing hundreds of pounds, while being moved on the job site. The machinery involved often includes:
On the construction site pipe welders, construction workers, and foremen need to be trained on the safe use of their HDPE welding machine as well as worksite safety when handling heavy awkward sections of pipe. The HDPE machine has moving parts that create immense pressure and heat. It is tempting for workers to reach into the gap between pipe sections to remove the pipe cuttings. This should be discouraged and the use of a stick or brush should be used to keep hands safely out of harm’s way even when the machine is off.
Always use PPE gear including gloves and steel-toed shoes when working the HDPE welder. Always handle the heating element as if it can burn you or someone else. Careful handling and storage of the heating plate need to be practiced until it becomes a habit.
After the HDPE sections are joined crush injuries are possible when the long sections of pipe are being lifted or positioned. HDPE pipe becomes increasingly heavy and unwieldy the longer it gets. When you are working with several hundred feet of pipe and heavy equipment accidental impacts and crush injuries can occur when loads become unstable.
HDPE pipe is known for its flexibility. The trade-off is that when it bends it can whip back to straighten itself out unexpectedly. HDPE can whip as it is being moved or if it is pressurized before it is secured. The stored energy from flexing or bending can mow down everything in its path. All workers need to be aware of the potential path of bent HDPE pipe should it whip itself back into a straighter line.
Hand and Strain Injuries
Hand injuries and strain injuries while handling HDPE pipe are common injuries. Meaning, workers try to move or reach into an area where it is safer to use the proper equipment. Getting the equipment or using the equipment takes more time, so it is tempting to hustle up and do it in an unsafe manner. These decisions result in strain and hand injuries that could have been avoided.
Strain injuries happen with excessive weight and poor lifting technique. When you try to lift an object and it shifts further away from your center of gravity, the less core strength and more effort you will need to control it.
Strain injuries can happen quickly with HDPE considering the weight and awkwardness of a few hundred feet of joined pipeline. On the construction site, many times the HDPE sections will be too long and heavy for manual lifting so heavy equipment will be used. However, it is tempting for workers to shift or scoot these pipe sections manually into position and strain injuries can result. Work smart and use proper tools for leverage and technique along with more people to safely move or shift heavy and awkward sections of pipe.
Most workers in skilled trades use their hands in their work. Hand injuries account for over 10k lost workdays in the construction industry each year. Don’t compromise for the sake of time. Use machines to lift and position pipelines. Never place your hands in a position where they can be impacted, pinned, or crushed. Always find alternative tools, levers, etc… instead.
What Are The Best Practices For HDPE Welding?
Training and education are key. Keeping safety top of mind includes training for everyone on the tools they use and safe practices common to the job site.
Proper HDPE Welder Use
Each welder is different and workers may be using more than one kind. Ensure that you have completed welder training. This will make you aware of safe handling of the heating element.
Always repair safeguards. It is tempting to push through work even when safeguards on machines break if they still work. Here are injuries that can be avoided if we simply stop using that machine and repair or replace the safeguards.
Alert Everyone When The Heavy Lifting Begins
Most likely the HDPE pipe you are working with will get to the point that it needs to be moved. And typically at this time the length and awkwardness of this load have increased. Don’t try to lift or move it yourself. Always use power machinery like front end loaders to move this kind of heavy load.
Be sure everyone is clear of the intended path of the HDPE pipe and stay away from areas where the pipe has major bends while it is moving. Controlling foot traffic in the area while moving the pipe will remove possible injuries from whipping, impact, and crushing if things go wrong.
Never Compromise Safety
Construction sites are areas of controlled chaos at times. Many steps are included in the process of welding sections of HDPE pipe together and moving it into place. Doing it safely takes time for pre-planning and being alert to unsafe situations that can occur. Be prepared to stop and take corrective action to complete these tasks safely.
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