Clear communication and shared accountability can reduce near misses and accidents related to torchcutting, whether your own employees or contractors torch your scrap.
By Megan Quinn
At a recent ISRI Safety and Environmental Council meeting in Salt Lake City, Scott McAlpine, a safety engineer for The David J. Joseph Co. (Cincinnati), polled the audience—about 60 people—to see how many hire contractors for their torchcutting needs. About a third of the hands went up. McAlpine nodded knowingly. “Torchcutting contractors are becoming more common,” he said. Over the years, he said, DJJ also has been using more and more contractors. Today, more than half of its roughly 50-person torchcutting force across 16 facilities that torch scrap come from outside contracting companies.
Yet the more contractors DJJ hired, the more the company realized there were significant differences in the safety standards employees were held to compared with contractors. “Traditionally, we would hire a contractor, and that contractor had his own supervisor. We would communicate our safety expectations, but the contractor was responsible for making sure the work was done safely after that,” McAlpine says. If the torchcutter was a DJJ employee, for example, he or she had to follow a stringent method of inspecting scrap to make sure the torch did not come in contact with a hazard such as a sealed container. DJJ supervisors felt it wasn’t their place to direct another company’s employees, but soon, he says, “we realized that some of our contractors were more concerned with just getting the material cut than they were with doing careful inspection of the material for hidden hazards before they cut it.”
After that realization, DJJ came up with a new inspection system—and it holds all torchcutters and supervisors accountable to that system. “If there’s a chance of a very serious fire or explosion, or any kind of release of stored energy, that … could affect a contractor just as it would affect any other employee. We had to be active participants in the inspection process,” he says.
Contractors can be a great resource for scrap companies that want to avoid the costs of expensive equipment, insurance, and any required lead compliance programs when they only occasionally need torchcutting services. Yet employers must make day-to-day operations safe for everyone on site regardless of who employs them, safety professionals say. Scrapyards can help avoid torchcutting-related accidents by setting clear expectations for both scrapyard managers and torchcutters, empowering torchcutters to speak up about unsafe practices, and making both yard safety staff and contract workers accountable for safety checks.
Partners in Accident Prevention
There are some obvious benefits of hiring contract torchcutting professionals, McAlpine says. At DJJ, he’s found that “it’s difficult to administer lead compliance programs, and it’s difficult to hire people who want to torchcut,” he says. “The contract company has good employees, they administer the [lead compliance] programs, and that makes it easy for us,” he says. Though contracts will vary, a contractor typically will hire and train the torchcutters, provide and launder uniforms, and provide the personal protective equipment and tools necessary to complete the job. When needed, the contractor typically also will conduct medical monitoring for any torchcutters exposed to airborne lead. Such monitoring includes a quarterly or yearly blood test, depending on exposure.
When hiring a contracting company, McAlpine says DJJ typically asks for a copy of the contractor’s safety program and has a meeting with the safety managers to get a feel for how knowledgeable they are about OSHA standards, how proactive they are about safety, and how “familiar they are with the hazards” such as heat-related illnesses or lead hazards. “We want to know if they really know what they are doing,” he says.
Just as a torchcutting contractor should show its history of safe practices, scrapyards need to show they take safety seriously, too, adds Josie Solache, operations manager of Nation Torch (Houston), which contracts out torchcutters to scrapyards in four states. Before signing a contract, a supervisor from Nation Torch will inspect the work site along with the safety manager from the scrapyard. The supervisor looks for potential hazards such as crowded or messy torching areas strewn with flammable items such as wood, or jagged scrap that can damage torchcutting hoses. “We use 100-foot hoses, so we need to make sure we have room to use those,” she says. The safety manager and contractor manager also make sure torchcutters have the proper shower facilities and break areas as well as required safety equipment, such as full, operational fire extinguishers that are close at hand.
Though it rarely turns down a contract, Solache says Nation Torch has declined to work with scrapyards that have clear safety problems. “You get a sense immediately of how a [scrapyard] operates. If you talk to their safety director, and he tells you they have safety meetings once a month, we think, ‘What?’ You just know that if a burner [works there] they will have an accident within a week. We don’t want to put our employees at risk.”
Nation Torch’s supervisors also can get a sense of a scrapyard’s commitment to safety by how the recycler treats its own employees’ safety. Basic things like checking to make sure employees are always wearing proper PPE, keeping break rooms clean, and putting up proper safety signage such as “No Smoking” signs are small but clear signs a scrapyard cares, she says. “If they don’t take care of their own employees, they definitely will not take care of ours,” she says.
Jason Brenner, general manager of Brenner Recycling (Hazleton, Pa.), says his operation has two torchcutters on the payroll, but it sometimes hires contractors for big jobs or off-site work. Building trusting relationships with contractors is crucial for everyone’s safety, he says—and that trust goes both ways. “We inspect the sites together and put a work plan in place together,” he says. Brenner says he has worked with the same torchcutting companies over the years, “so they know us and we know them. They know what we require of them and [we know] what they require of us. We even know what kinds of liquid [fuel] they like best.”
Solache says relationships between torchcutting contractors and recyclers may look different in different places, but all agreements are spelled out in a contract and discussed before work begins. At some scrapyards, their end of the agreement might simply be providing a clean and safe work area. Others expect more interaction between the contract workers and the yard employees. “Some scrapyards even want the [contractors] to participate in their toolbox talks if it’s relevant,” she says. Even after scrapyards and contractors build up a relationship, Solache checks in regularly. “We discuss anything they need, any ways we can improve our safety operations, or any changes that are coming up on their end,” she says. “It’s an ongoing conversation.”
The Right PPE
Most torchcutters and their employers know the standard PPE list for torchcutting work, but safety professionals say even experienced torchcutters have been caught wearing a short-sleeved shirt or forgoing safety glasses under their face shield. According to ISRI’s safety team, the minimum PPE requirements include a hard hat, safety glasses, and a face shield with protection from ultraviolet light. Use a shield with a shade rating between 4 and 6, depending on the thickness of the material being cut, the safety team says, because bright light from the torch can damage eyes. Torchcutters also should wear
■ a respirator, unless the scrapyard can prove the absence of a respiratory hazard such as airborne lead;
■ a fire-retardant, long-sleeved shirt made of cotton or another fire-rated material—never polyester or nylon or another type of material that could seriously injure the wearer if it catches fire;
■ fire-retardant gloves, chaps, or coveralls;
■ thick-soled, steel-toe work boots with metatarsal guards; and
■ hearing protection, if needed.
Nation Torch provides its torchcutters with required PPE, but sometimes scrapyards ask contractors to wear special additional PPE beyond the basic list, Solache says. Proper PPE is important in a small, 3-acre yard like Brenner Recycling, where machine operators must be more mindful of how close they get to torchcutters, Brenner says. Employees there needed reflective gear that makes them more visible to the crane operators in the yard, so Brenner Recycling recently started requiring any torchcutter on site to wear a lime green safety helmet in addition to his or her other safety gear. “They used to wear a blue helmet or, in the case of contracted torchcutters, whatever helmet they brought with them, but now they don’t blend in anymore. They practically glow in the dark,” he says.
PPE is crucial for safe work, but the reality is that workers sometimes decide not to wear certain gear or wear it incorrectly because it’s uncomfortable or inconvenient, McAlpine says. That’s why he and other DJJ safety managers perform spot checks to make sure both employees and contractors wear all required PPE at all times. “Spot checking is really important for us. If we find a contractor not wearing a respirator, for example, we contact their supervisor and they are removed immediately,” he says.
When torchcutters feel comfortable, they are more likely to wear all required PPE—and wear it correctly, he adds. For example, DJJ torchcutters use powered air purifying respirators, a combination hard hat/face shield with a belt-mounted unit that pumps air through a tube. Since the PAPR doesn’t fit tightly against the face like other respirators, it does not need to be fit-tested, and workers can grow a beard or goatee if they want. It also doesn’t cause an unpleasant, sweaty feeling against a worker’s face, he says. DJJ recommends that contractors wear this type of respirator, but it ultimately leaves it up to the contracting company to decide what type is best. “As long as it’s rated for the airborne hazards associated with torchcutting, it’s OK,” he says.
Equipment and Area Inspections
Once the torchcutter is properly outfitted, the next step is to check the equipment to make sure it’s in good working order, then inspect the torching area for possible hazards. Contractors typically bring and inspect their own equipment. Solache says her torchcutters conduct daily equipment inspections and fill out an inspection form before they can start work. That inspection goes on file for both the scrapyard and Nation Torch to refer to if there is a problem.
Common items on the equipment checklist include inspecting the check valve, ensuring it’s free of grease and dirt. Another component to check is the flashback arrestor, which OSHA requires on torching equipment between the regulator and hose to prevent a flame from passing into the fuel system, says Jeff Wilke, director of health and safety for Alter Trading Corp. (St. Louis). Check these valves at least every six months, but more often if the hoses are frequently removed from the torch, he says.
Examine the hoses daily for cuts, cracks, and general signs of wear. Damaged hoses can leak gases and potentially fill the work area or, worse, saturate a torchcutter’s PPE and make the gear extra-flammable, Wilke warns. Replace hoses when needed. If you have to splice your hoses, don’t use hose clamps because they can cut or damage hoses and can easily loosen and leak gas, he says. Instead, use properly crimped connections. (Alter has purchased these from its gas supply company.) Also, never splice a hose within 20 feet of the torch. Finally, check the torch itself, including the tip, and clean it regularly.
Before a torchcutter starts work, he or she also must survey the work area. This is another area where contractors and scrapyards can work together, Solache says. Typically, the contractor manager and the scrapyard safety manager survey the space together to answer the following questions: Is there enough space for all the torchcutters who will be working at the same time to ensure they won’t throw sparks on a neighbor or on combustible material? Is the area laid out so torchcutters don’t need to stand on scrap to get the job done? Is there a plan for clearing the scrap when it accumulates in the work area, and are there access and exit paths that stay clear during the cutting process?
Wilke also suggests considering which way the wind will blow so torchcutters can position themselves to get the least exposure to the smoke. And when setting up fire extinguishers and fire blankets near the work area, pay attention to the details, Brenner adds. “You know you’re required to have a fire extinguisher, but you should also check—is it full?” he says.
Inspecting the Scrap
Once the equipment and torching area are safe, it’s time to inspect the scrap. Scrapyards need a clear communication system for inspecting, identifying, and removing potentially hazardous scrap from the torching area, McAlpine says. This is important because information about a possible hazard might not get passed on from shift to shift.
When DJJ realized its contractors and employees were using two different systems to inspect and mark scrap, the company’s plant manager in Colorado created a new marking system to prevent all torchcutters from being injured by hidden dangers. The new “dual-inspection” system requires both the DJJ inspector and the contract supervisor to inspect every piece of scrap once it’s laid out in the torchcutting area, then mark it with either a green circle or a red X. Once hazardous-looking scrap is marked with an X, it is moved away from the torching area for further inspection. McAlpine says it isn’t enough to just mark the pieces that don’t get cut. A green circle shows that someone inspected the scrap and deemed it safe. “That way, during the inspection process, if [something] got missed, we’d know” because it wasn’t marked, he says.
With this marking system, torchcutters coming in for the next shift or from another company know that the scrap has been inspected and is ready to be cut. “Torchcutters are territorial,” he says, and they want to finish cutting a piece of metal instead of passing it to another torchcutting crew at the end of their shift. Yet if the torchcutter must stop in the middle of a job, pass it to another employee or contractor, or is sick the next day, the information about that scrap is written directly on the material, he says.
DJJ took this system further by setting up an identification training course in which torchcutters and contractor supervisors walk around a yard and identify safe and problematic scrap. They also learn to identify other possible hazards, such as a component coated in flammable rubber or a piece of pipe that has two open ends but appears to have something coated on the inside. “It’s not always simple” to catch problems, McAlpine says.
Inspecting for hazards doesn’t stop after scrap is marked “safe” or “not safe.” Torchcutters must thoroughly inspect scrap every time it is laid out and before starting to torch to continue looking for hidden hazards. Some common hidden hazards include hidden springs, accumulators, or tensioners that store energy in coils or tanks and can explode on contact with a torch, he says. Scrap that appears greasy or may have fluids inside should be set aside, too. Then there are gas cylinders, “which should never be torched,” Wilke says.
There’s also an issue of how safely the scrap is laid out. An individual piece of scrap may be safe to torch on its own, but it might get stacked in a way that makes it unsafe because it could fall or roll on a torchcutter, Wilke says. Some torchcutters have a habit of standing on parts of the scrap to get a better angle when torching or standing near the location where a piece is likely to fall, which can be dangerous, he adds.
Torchcutters also should never crawl under, on top of, or inside scrap. This might sound obvious, Brenner says, but it happened at his facility a few months ago, when a torchcutter crawled inside a large tube with a lit torch. In addition to the danger of scrap falling on him or him becoming injured from sparks or smoke inside an enclosed space, the risk increased when the crane operator was about to pick the tube up. Another quick-thinking torchcutter saw what was happening and got the equipment operator’s attention, saving the man inside. The torchcutter, a Brenner Recycling employee, was immediately suspended in accordance with the company’s safety policy. The company conducted a root-cause analysis, “and the incident was discussed among all the employees at their next safety meeting,” he says. “Ultimately, it became a learning moment for everyone in the company.”
Health and Well-Being
The contracting companies, scrapyards, and torchcutters all should keep an eye on torchcutters’ health and well-being while on the job. Contractors typically are responsible for conducting health screenings and blood testing for airborne hazards such as lead, but scrapyards are responsible for providing showers and lockers for torchcutter uniforms. As part of the initial site visit, contractor supervisors and scrapyard safety managers should discuss the site’s lead program and specific airborne hazards if the job includes torching obsolete, demolition, or other scrap where lead, cadmium, or other contamination hazards might be present, McAlpine says. Both should make sure contractors follow the correct safety procedures for cleaning and storing their respirators to prevent lead contamination. Solache says she sometimes gets calls from scrapyards if they notice a contract employee isn’t following procedures.
Heat-related illness is another hazard everyone is responsible for spotting, Solache adds. Scrapyards should provide water—Wilke recommends storing single-use, disposable water bottles outside the immediate torching area, along with lead-removing wipes for hands and face, to prevent contamination—and watch for signs of heat-related illness. McAlpine says DJJ supervisors “look in on our contractors pretty often” and are especially vigilant in places known for extreme heat, such as Texas. “They’re all part of our operations, and we want to make sure they’re OK.” DJJ facilities also change torchcutting work hours during hot weather to avoid working in the hottest part of the day, he adds.
Solache says responsible scrapyards watch out for her contractors, but she also expects the contractors to speak up to the safety manager if something doesn’t seem safe or if there is a problem. Make it clear that it’s OK to speak up about safety issues, even if you’re not a full-time employee, Brenner says. “We all want to do things the right way. Everyone on site has to be empowered to ‘see something, say something,’” he says.
Torchcutters do a better job and take more pride in their work when they feel safe, Solache says. “It’s a very hard job, but our burners really like the job. There’s something about holding out that 5-foot torch. They love cutting metal, and they love making money doing it,” she says.
Megan Quinn is reporter/writer for Scrap.