Working as a welder comes with a whole variety of challenges. Working in uncomfortable positions, spending hours in the beating sun, and the physical strain of manual labor are just some of the difficulties that welders and others in the trades encounter on a daily basis.
One challenge that many welders assume will be absent, however, is the difficulty of working with water. That is, unless you’re an underwater welder.
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It may be the case that you’ve already heard of underwater welding, which has become the subject of numerous viral videos on platforms such as YouTube and TikTok. This intensive work is necessary for repairs and construction to be performed on structures at sea, including oil rigs.
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How does underwater welding work?
Underwater welding is one type of work that a welder or commercial diver may be interested in exploring to enhance their experience and employability. While it is important that you understand how to weld on land before learning to weld underwater, the two methods differ in a number of ways.
“The difference between the two is that Welding underwater is a “self-consuming” Method. This means there is no arc length when you are striking up to start welding,” says Keith Riggins, a welding instructor at the Divers Institute of Technology in Seattle, Washington.
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“After you strike up you will apply 4-inch pounds of down pressure to your welding rod in order to keep your rod from coming off the piece you are welding on, because unlike welding topside you are able to touch your welding rod without burning your finger. After striking up you also need to keep your rod at a 45-degree angle for travel speed and a 45-degree angle for your work angle. The rods are normally dipped in a lacquer or a wax to keep your flux intact,” Keith adds.
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Underwater welding is rarely performed as its own line of work; most underwater welding is done as part of a larger job with several components to it. “In diving you won’t likely find a job in which you’ll be underwater welding only. Each dive station and dive site has many different roles topside and underwater. Underwater welding is one of those different jobs that you could have while diving,” Keith tells us. This is why experience in welding is especially valuable for commercial divers, who may be more secure in their employment if they have prior welding experience.
Keith continues: “To have prior welding experience will set you above many others. If on a job and diving is slow they will more likely keep you occupied because of that background in welding.”
Risks and safety precautions
It isn’t surprising that water and electricity can be dangerous in the same environment, and this challenge is often compounded by the difficulty of working deep below sea level.
“Some dangers with underwater welding can include shock and a buildup of hydrogen gases. Those gases need to be vented properly from the area you are welding so that they won’t build up and become dangerous,” Keith tells YesWelder.
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Because of the potential dangers involved in this kind of work, precautions are necessary. “First you need all of your dive gear,” Keith explains, “You’ll also need to wear latex gloves underneath your neoprene dive gloves to prevent possible electric shock. You will need a welding lens attachment for your dive helmet to protect your eyes from the intensity of the weld arc.”
Beyond equipment, the right mindset is essential for welders to work in an environment that is both physically and psychologically pressurized. “It is important to have attention to detail and situational awareness when welding underwater.”
Keith illustrates the point about the demanding nature of this work with his own experience working on boats in Dutch Harbor, Alaska for the Discovery Channel series Deadliest Catch. “This particular job will require you to work “mid-water”, which means you will have to work directly under the boat using your buoyancy and scuba fins to be able to effectively work on the hull of the boat.
At times you may be holding an anode or zinc, which can weigh up to 35 pounds, above your head while trying to weld or tack it in place.” He adds that the work “can be physically demanding and stressful at times,” but notes that underwater welders learn to better control their breathing over time.
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Due to the technical nature of underwater welding, and the potential risks involved, specialized training is necessary for anyone wishing to enter this line of work. The Divers Institute of Technology is one such training provider which ensures that their students are properly prepared to work as an underwater welder.
“We will teach you the many techniques to vent properly to avoid having a buildup of those gases and be able to weld as safely as possible underwater,” Keith tells us, drawing on his first-hand knowledge as an instructor at DIT, where he has worked for almost a year.
Photo by @diversinstitute
Not only can an underwater welding certification improve your employability and job security, it can also open the door to work which welders can find personally rewarding.
“I personally felt a huge sense of accomplishment after having completed an important job for a customer that is waiting for you to complete the task so they can get underway,” Keith told us. “Being able to call yourself a welder is one thing but to say that you can also weld underwater is another level of rewarding.”
Photo by @diversinstitute
Thank you to Keith at the Divers Institute of Technology for participating in an interview for this article. Check out the DIT website here.