Although it may sound strange and outlandish to many people, underwater welding is quite common and useful. It is used to repair subsea pipelines and ships, drill oil, and mine. However, underwater welding is also incredibly dangerous and requires not only welding expertise but diving skills, as well.
How does underwater welding work? Underwater welding utilizes arc welding and diving skills to perform welding repairs underwater. It requires a certified welder and diver that has gone through extensive training. It is a very dangerous field, but underwater welders are necessary for many purposes.
Although the profession has been around for a little under a hundred years, there are still many things about underwater welding that are unknown to people. Read on to learn the many dangers and mechanics of underwater welding and what kind of a career it can be.
How Dangerous is Underwater Welding?
Underwater welding is hazardous for many different reasons. Here’s a video explaining several of them:
There are the risks that come with handling electrical equipment underwater, general risks of being in the ocean to begin with, and the potential for drowning or other serious bodily injuries. These are all real risks that the underwater welders face.
Some of the common risks of underwater welding are:
- Electrocution: Because underwater welders are handling electrical equipment underwater, the welders must be extremely careful. The risk of electrocution is very real. They have to wear special waterproof equipment and use thoroughly tested equipment so that the risk of malfunction is reduced. Because they are underwater, any small failure can lead to death.
- Explosions: Although it seems outlandish, explosions are very much a risk for underwater welders. Explosions can occur when gas pockets of hydrogen and oxygen are ignited. These are especially dangerous because the gas pockets are not visible and avoidable. That is why all the equipment must be used only for its specified purpose, and very carefully at that.
- Drowning: When underwater welding, the welder is wearing a specialized waterproof suit to protect them, but it could also lead to drowning. If there is any defect in the suit, a welder would likely be dragged down by all their equipment and drown. Even if they are great swimmers and divers, the welding gear will absolutely pull them towards the ocean floor. There is also the chance that if they are in extremely cold or high-pressure water, they could develop hypothermia or lose consciousness. This, of course, leads to drowning.
- Decompression sickness: Decompression sickness, also known as diver’s disease, is caused when divers inhale toxic gases while they’re moving between pressure zones. Decompression sickness can manifest as nausea, extreme fatigue, difficulty thinking, and muscle weakness. Eventually, it leads to death. Here is a great video to help explain the hows and whys of decompression sickness.
- Long-term injuries: If a person were to spend too much time underwater, they would sustain permanent damage to their ears, nose, or lungs. Many of them could lose their hearing, develop chronic pain, and even have memory difficulties later in life. The high, constantly changing pressure and lack of a surplus of oxygen will cause your body not to be able to function properly. For this reason, underwater welders usually work in groups by taking shifts so that no one person is underwater for too long.
- Aquatic life: While it is uncommon, there have been reported cases of underwater welders being attacked and killed by aquatic life. Therefore, underwater welders must always be conscious of sea creatures, specifically sharks. They must also be aware of how to handle a situation in which they are near a deadly animal. Although this rarely happens, the welders must be prepared for it.
Underwater welders struggle through many dangerous conditions to accomplish their jobs. They perform a job that is integral to the upkeep of society as we know it in so many ways. Because their jobs are so important, their safety must be taken seriously.
How Do Underwater Welders Die?
The life expectancy of underwater welders is depressingly low. According to AllHeadGear, underwater welders live between 35 to 40 years. Even if they do happen to live longer and retire from the underwater welding business, they will likely have to deal with life-long injuries.
Some life-long injuries that underwater welders deal with include:
- lost limbs
- chronic pain
- lack of cognitive abilities
- hearing problems
These are the casualties of getting into the underwater welding business. Therefore, there are not many people that choose underwater welding as a career.
How Long Do Underwater Welders Work?
The working hours for underwater welders can vary depending on their experience level or the work available. Because of the nature of their job, they may work multiple 60-hour weeks in a row or even 80-hour weeks. Other times, they may work a 30- to 40-hour workweek. This makes the job slightly unpredictable, but generally, there is enough work available that an underwater welder is rarely scrounging for work.
An underwater welder can make about $120,000 in a year if they work long hours every week. In the end, it comes down to the choice of the person as to whether working as an underwater welder is worth it.
How Do Underwater Welders Not Get Electrocuted?
There are many ways in which an underwater welder could be electrocuted. The most common reason is that they do not use their welder as carefully as they should or an accident occurs. However, there are ways to reduce the risk of being electrocuted during underwater welding.
Some measures underwater welders can take to lessen their risk of electrocution are:
- Testing: The best way to make sure that none of the equipment malfunctions is to test it thoroughly. Equipment such as welding suits, welders, air chambers, and power supplies should be tested in water, under heat, and in exposure to all the elements present during underwater welding. It may take quite a bit more time and effort, but will save numerous lives and is well worth it. Even after the equipment has been approved, it should periodically be tested to make sure that it is working at its best.
- The flux of the electrodes: The flux or external coating of the electrodes used in underwater welding plays a critical part in preventing electrocution (btw, don’t forget to check out our 9 common welding mistakes article for great info on land welding mistakes). When welding underwater, you produce a thick layer of bubbles that prevent the electricity from encountering the water. So, making sure that your flux coating is always working is especially important. A small slip up and the electricity would meet the water and likely electrocute you.
Overall, following general safety precautions and keeping all the equipment and materials involved in the best possible shape is all you can do. The more cautious you are, the less likely you are to be electrocuted. The best safety practices to follow are to make sure you are aware of your surroundings and keep in constant contact with your team while welding.
Do Sharks Attack Underwater Welders?
When you think of underwater welders, you might also think of all the deadly and lethal animals in the ocean that might potentially attack the welder – with sharks being at the top of the list.
However, this is a popular misconception. For the most part, sharks do not indiscriminately attack or eat humans; instead, it tends to be an accident on their part. According to the Florida Museum, only about 11% of free divers get attacked by sharks every year. This does not mean that everyone is safe from marine animals; it just means that attacks from sealife are not as frequent as one would think.
Still, underwater welders must be very conscious of their surroundings and the animals that inhabit them. They should always remember that they are infringing on the animal’s territory and are putting themselves at risk by doing so. It is, for the most part, the welder’s job to avoid and handle situations with the local wildlife peacefully. This is extremely important, as they are also not allowed to harm the wildlife in any way.
Is Underwater Welding a Good Career?
Before going into wet welding, you might wonder if it is a good, stable career. The truth of it is that although the pay is excellent, the hours are very long, and the life expectancy is very low. It also requires lots of training and certifications.
To become an underwater welder, you must have the following training and certifications:
- AWS Certificate of Welding Training
- Commercial Diving Certificate
- High school diploma or GED
- Great swimming abilities
- Mechanical aptitude
It can be a terrifying job, and all the dangers involved make for horrible deaths and injuries. For most people, it is not worth it to be an underwater welder, because the pros do not outweigh the cons.
The Pros of Underwater Welding
Although it is an unsafe job, underwater welding does have some advantages. These benefits are the only things that make it worth it for many people, and they endure all the horrible conditions for them.
Some of the advantages of underwater welding are:
- The pay: Because of all the dangers and risks of the job, underwater welding pays exceptionally well. When welding out in the sea, you could make about $100,000 a year, while welding on land only pays about $80,000. This compensation is what drives so many people to become underwater welders and risk their lives and mental health for the job.
- The travel: As an underwater welder, you will get to travel quite a bit for your work. You could be placed anywhere from Mexico to Europe, and you might be stationed there for up to six months. Then, you will be relocated. Although this may sound horrible for some people, for others, it is heaven. The constant traveling is one of the few amazing parts of being an underwater welder.
- Connection: Because of the relative isolation and long periods out at sea, you will end up forming very close connections with your team. Underwater welders work in small groups or units, and they tend to stick together through their placements. These people can end up becoming your closest friends, and they are often what makes the long shifts underwater tolerable.
- Diving: For most underwater welders, the diving aspect of the job is what they live for. Although the water pressure and welding work can be horrible, these people get to dive deep into the ocean and explore. Their work introduces them to all kinds of marine life and lets them interact with parts of the ocean. Being in that environment is mesmerizing and shows you so much of the beauty of the world.
These pros are significant to note because, for underwater welders, most of the time, the small things make a tremendous difference in their life.
The Cons of Underwater Welding
Unfortunately, the pros of underwater welding hardly make up for all of the cons. These disadvantages are very extreme, brutal, and can affect the welders’ mental health, physical health, and the rest of their life. Not only that, but they are not conditions that humans are meant to be in for extended periods.
Some of the cons of underwater welding are:
- The isolation: Although they would have their team, underwater welders are, for the most part, very isolated from all people. They must spend months just working and interacting with a handful of people. This lack of socialization can cause severe psychological issues and can damage their mental health profusely. Most underwater welders have a hard time getting back into society after they retire, and an even harder time adapting to a regular schedule and job.
- Dangers: Underwater welding comes with many dangers, and death is not even the worst of them. For so many underwater welders, losing limbs to marine animals or being electrocuted to the point they are paralyzed is a daily reality. Living with that knowledge can cripple a person’s psyche and result in deep trauma.
- The small spaces: When on duty, you would live in a tiny space, and that can be terrifying for people. It also means that in case of an emergency, there is a small space that the welders are working with to handle the problem. Numerous people can develop claustrophobia because of the small spaces, and after retirement, that fear can stay with them.
- Adverse psychological effects: Working as an underwater welder can lead to a deterioration in mental health and many lasting mental health issues. They may suffer anxiety after having been so isolated for so long. They can develop PTSD if they are involved in any sort of accident while underwater. Moreover, any physical ailments they come back with can cause them to feel separated and isolated from society. This can lead to major depressive disorder and become a lifelong battle.
All these reasons are why underwater welding is a relatively undesirable job. Most people going into it retire as soon as they can or do not live long enough to. It is sad, but unfortunately true, and it is the reality for all the underwater welders out there.
Integration of Underwater Welders Into Society
Even though the integration back into society can be hard, there are many ways that it can be made easier. To help retired underwater welders, there is a multitude of support groups and job opportunities. The support groups are there to help them detach from the isolated lifestyle of an underwater welder and to get better at communicating with people in everyday life. By donating to or helping publicize these support groups, you can help many retired underwater welders.
Beyond that, there is specialized therapy to help deal with any PTSD, depression, or anxiety they have. This can help the retired welders cope with and overcome any trauma they have faced. This can, of course, be extremely expensive and inaccessible to some people, so contributing to therapy that supports underwater welders is a great help.
After that, it just comes down to finding a new job on land. Many retirees may take up land welding as they already have the training for it. In other cases, they may choose to pursue an entirely different career. This new job would hopefully mark the start of a new part of their lives as mentally and physically healthy people.
Beyond all the risks of the job, underwater welders are vital to sustaining the economy and infrastructure of the modern world. Without them, damage to pipelines and ships would go unrepaired and potentially harm thousands of people. So, although most people would never trade their job for that of an underwater welder, the occupation is one that must exist in the world we live in.
Because of this, it is essential to support underwater welders and help them. This can be by ensuring their equipment is tested and safe or helping retirees integrate back into daily life. It is also important to understand how underwater welding works so that all these people who do it can get the support and help that they need.