Underwater welding: one of the most dangerous occupations in the world

Underwater welding is one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet, though perhaps not for the reasons you may think.
Interesting Engineering
  • Underwater welding is a highly specialized and risky profession that involves welding in the underwater environment's harsh and often unpredictable conditions.
  • The dangers of underwater welding cannot be overstated, as welders are exposed to various hazards such as electric shock, explosion, drowning, and decompression sickness.
  • But what does the job entail day to day?

Despite the dangers, thousands take on the responsibility of installing underwater structures. Underwater welders are responsible for repairing pipelines, offshore oil drilling rigs, ships, dams, locks, sub-sea habitats, and nuclear power facilities, to name but a few.

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

How to weld underwater

Binding two pieces of metal underwater involves a lot of consideration towards safety. There are a few ways welders approach the task. In most cases, and most ideally, a dry chamber system is used. Temporary hyperbaric chambers are used to prevent water from entering the work area. The chambers house up to three welders at a time.

Fans controlled by a ground crew consistently exchange exhausted air and replace it with new air. The cabins are pressurized to minimize the effects of pressure sickness. But, more on that later.

Alternately, there is something called wet welding, a practice used mainly as a last resort. The chosen method depends on the ease of access to the area and the severity level. Wet welds run the extra chance of cooling down too quickly by the water, increasing the likelihood of cracking.

"Wet welding is an emergency or temporary thing," explains underwater welder Jeff Peters.

The job requires working in daunting environments deep underwater with minimal visibility. "The places you're working are very dark and very cold," Peters added.

If that hasn't put you off, and the job sounds even mildly appealing if you want to start an underwater welding career, you are required certification and proper training from AWS - American Welding Society (or an appropriate body, depending on the country where you're living).

Luckily, there are lots of commercial diving schools that can help you out. You can easily find an online school with specialized courses.  If you pass testing after the program, you can perform marine repair and construction. 

How does underwater welding work?

Using electricity underwater seems incredibly dangerous, which it is, but not necessarily from the electricity. Most underwater welding uses stick welding, which uses an electric arc as energy.

When wet welding, a thick layer of bubbles is created as the flux on the outside of the rod evaporates. The gas layer shields the weld from water and other oxidizing compounds.

How dangerous is underwater welding?

Of course, as expected, underwater welding is a hazardous field of work. Though many water flow hazards impede diving operations, some of the most significant dangers to underwater welders may be surprising.

One of the most dangerous hazards to divers is known as "Delta P" hazard (ΔP). Delta P, or differential pressure, presents a unique and potentially fatal danger to divers. The differential pressures occur when two bodies of water intersect, each with a different water level, such as the water levels at a dam.

The difference in depth creates a pressure difference as water attempts to rush from one body to the next with great force. Furthermore, Delta P's are nearly undetectable until it is too late to escape The pressure difference can accumulate to hundreds of pounds per square inch, making them tough to escape. Consequently, a diver trapped in the flow bottleneck has an incredibly high risk of drowning.

Proper preparations and practices must be considered before a project is executed safely. Experience, technical skills, and physical strength are additional requirements for diving. Fatal accidents are likely to occur if the safety procedures are not stringently enforced.

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

Though 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.

And that is your lot for today.

Underwater welding is a challenging and hazardous profession requiring skilled and experienced professionals trained to operate in an extreme and unforgiving environment. Despite the risks, underwater welding remains crucial in industries such as oil and gas exploration, marine construction, and ship repair.

Welders must take the necessary precautions and follow strict safety guidelines to ensure their well-being and avoid accidents. By recognizing the dangers of underwater welding and implementing appropriate safety measures, welders can perform their work effectively and safely.

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