Routinely testing areas for the presence of flammable gases, equipping workers with cheap and easy-to-use air monitors, thoroughly training workers on safe practices and providing qualified supervision can prevent explosions and fires caused by welding flames and grinding sparks.

These are the basic conclusions the federal U.S. Chemical Safety Board reached after it investigated an accident at a Wisconsin cardboard box factory in which hydrogen gas ignited and killed three members of a welding crew.

CSB also looked into industrial accidents in five other states between July 2008 and June 2009 in which seven worked lost their lives and two workers got severely burned because flammable gas went up during what the agency describes as “hot work” — burning, welding, cutting, brazing, grinding, soldering and other operations that produce sparks. The U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration has issued several dozen standards for conducting hot work safely, but the CSB recommendations are the first set of proposed industrywide practices to prevent explosions in and around storage tanks that contain primarily solid organic materials.

I have written elsewhere on this site about the specific dangers of fumes created when metals and solder are welded and heated. Our firm has extensive experience respecting railroad operations, including welding of track, switch assemblies and railroad “frogs.”

The combustion of gasoline, oil, hydrogen, methane and other fumes presents an even more immediate threat to workers’ lives and health in Virginia (VA) and in all other states, and I am glad to see the CSB acknowledge this. In 2002, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 165 workers died in fires and another 77 died in explosions.

Working with welding equipment and performing other jobs that create intensive heat and throw long sparks can never be completely safe. However, companies and managers can create and enforce workplace rules and procedures that minimize the risks of death and injury to workers. Following the recommendations of the CSB would be a good start.