By Diane M. Calabrese / Published June 2023
Not seeing is sometimes believing. At least it is with the potential for injury when using waterjetting tools. If a tool can cut metal, as a waterjetting device can, it’s easy to do a quick assessment of risk.
After considering that waterjets must be used with care, the question becomes how to apply them as
widely as possible while at the same time preventing injuries. Training
often looks like the universal answer to how to create safe work conditions. That’s because in large part it is.
“The most overlooked aspect of waterjetting safety is the need for standardized, certified training,” says Kerry Siggins, the CEO of StoneAge Inc. in Durango, CO, who also currently serves as vice president of WJTA [Waterjet Technology Association]. “Each service provider develops their own training program, which means training varies from company to company.”
A uniform approach to safety brings clarity and ensures that whether planning or executing a project, the fundamentals are in place. It’s the everyone-on-the-same-page (using the same lexicon) component of safety.
“Many facility owners don’t require specific training or certification, and lack of consistency creates more opportunities for accidents,” explains Siggins. “The WJTA is working to address this with their hydroblaster training and certification program, but it would be beneficial if facility owners required it for broader, faster adoption.”
Some companies may benefit from getting outside help with training in safe practices. “We have not used a consultant at StoneAge, but I highly recommend companies do so if they do not have a robust, up-to-date safety and training program that aligns with the WJTA’s best practices.”
Complacency and safety are always in opposition to each other. Unfortunately, improvements that enhance safety of equipment can be so sophisticated—e.g., robotic operation—they diminish (however slightly) concern about risk.
“One must always emphasize safety when waterjetting, even when using robotics,” says Siggins. She points to the many variables in any waterjetting job as a signal of the complexity that can add to risk.
“High-pressure water is always dangerous, and operators must follow proper safety practices to ensure no one is injured,” explains Siggins. “Robotic waterjetting reduces the chance of a waterjet cut as the operator is removed from the blast zone. However, accidents still happen, and proper training and vigilant awareness are always required.”
The WJTA Training and Certifi-cation program that Siggins cites is being developed in conjunction with the Health and Safety Council (HASC), a 501(c)(3) trade association based in Pasadena, TX. The HASC facilitates training for employers and keeps the focus on consistent and verifiable outcomes.
Transferable credentials for technicians, regular review of and updates to training, and standardized technology and best practices are integral parts of the WJTA program. There are separate training and certification programs for hydroblaster, vacuum operator, and asset owner. (See WJTA.org for more details.)
In the next section, Jimmy Peck, the current president of WJTA and the general manager of MPW Industrial Services Inc. in Hebron, OH, offers his perspective on the resolve required to prevent waterjetting injuries.
CT: Does robotic waterjetting, with its enhanced safety and the “feel safer” mode it promotes, require any special emphasis on safe practices?
PECK: I’m defining safety as human health and safety. In all aspects, robotic, automated, or autonomous high-pressure waterjetting equipment separates the human operator from all dangers. That being said, robotic waterjetting requires a different skillset from manual waterjetting.
There are some people who are good at both manual waterjetting and operating robotic equipment. In general, these people are mechanically inclined. They understand it; they have fun with it. But, as mentioned, robotics is a different skillset, and it does require training.
The robot is a technical piece of equipment, and there is new equipment coming out on a regular basis. It is an evolving part of the market, and it’s all operated differently. There are many manufacturers, so none of it is universal, and training is required to learn to operate it.
Robotic waterjetting enhances safety but requires technical expertise. A good portion of our folks who are good at manual waterjetting have really embraced the new technology, and they’ve become good at that, too.
The main complaint people have about robotic waterjetting is not safety related. It’s actually the amount of time it takes to set up the robotic equipment and troubleshooting any technical issues. If someone is sent out with a manual waterjet to run a single tube sheet, then the job will potentially be done faster, but there is a risk of injury to the technician.
On bigger jobs the robotic setup time becomes marginalized. For a big tube sheet with 10,000 tubes in it, the setup still takes a while. But once the job is under way, it’s happening faster. The robot works consistently and doesn’t need to take a break.
Robotic waterjetting doesn’t require any special emphasis upon additional or new safety precautions, or safety hazards that didn’t exist. There is no part of robotic waterjetting that is less safe than manual waterjetting when safety is defined as human safety.
CT: Has your company ever used a consultant to help with training in safe practices? If so, do you recommend doing so?
PECK: Consultants have their place. MPW Industrial Services is a large organization and has many “consultants” who are employees, so MPW doesn’t necessarily need consultants. However, an organization that doesn’t have that type of expertise on staff probably should seek help from a consultant to shorten the learning curve, especially when learning to operate a new piece of automated equipment.
Honestly, the best place to get that consultative help is from the robotic, automated, or autonomous equipment manufacturer. Companies like Stone-Age—MPW uses a lot of StoneAge equipment—will consult with MPW any time there’s new equipment being used. StoneAge trains employees on best practices, and then MPW scales that instruction through its own safety and training department.
CT: Which is the most overlooked aspect of waterjetting safety?
PECK: The most overlooked aspect of waterjetting safety is complacency, which is all the more reason automated equipment is needed. At the root of every waterjetting incident is this idea of becoming too comfortable with the job—getting too close to the hose, getting too close to the pressure, cutting corners, not wearing the proper PPE [personal protective equipment], or not getting the right variance. Complacency covers a lot of stuff, such as ignoring policies and procedures and hurrying through work.
For example, a contractor had one more drain to lance on the rooftop of a steel mill, and there wasn’t enough hose to finish the job according to procedure. So, the crew stretched every-thing out as far as possible rather than getting another section of hose and taking it all the way back to the roof. With the stretched hose, the guy who was operating the lance couldn’t operate the foot pedal, which acts as a kill switch. That’s a major rule: The lance operator has to operate the kill switch, so if something bad happens, the operator is the first one to react.
The lance operator asked a co-worker to manage the foot pedal because the operator couldn’t reach it without the proper hose length. But the foot pedal was in an awkward position so the person who was managing the foot pedal had to get down on all fours to push the foot pedal with his hand (there’s another red flag—a hand is on the foot pedal). While he’s doing that, the hose bursts and explodes in his face. He’s now blind in one eye.
So, what happened there? It all falls under complacency. The lance operator became complacent with the energy he was handling. This is deadly force. Anytime policy or procedure is ignored, and someone becomes too comfortable with that deadly force being near that person’s face, side, or wherever, an accident is bound to happen.
Robotic, automated, or autonomous waterjetting is necessary because it removes complacency from the equation. Should the operator of a robotic waterjet become distracted and make a mistake, no one is hurt because there’s nobody near the danger zone. Robotic, automated, or autonomous equipment keeps the operator safe by separating the operator from the deadly force.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides a searchable list of workplace events that result in death. For the five-year period ending April 11, 2023, there were 24,735 deaths recorded.
In that period, workers were electrocuted, struck by trees, crushed by dump truck trailers, caught in machine parts, and fell. (The individual incident reports give more graphic details.)
Waterjetting accidents have caused death in the past—e.g., in 2011, a worker died when a coupling failed during setup of a machine capable of 55,000 psi. But in recent years, the record of the industry is good.
With initiatives for tight collaboration between manufacturer and asset owners in training, it can only get better.