Waterjetting: Follow the Rules and You Won’t Get Hurt

Waterblasting in winter? You’re basically creating your own black ice. Here’s a primer on kicking these dangerous waterjetting habits.
Waterjetting: Follow the Rules and You Won’t Get Hurt
At just 12 gallons per minute, a waterjet cut lasting one second will inject a quart of dirty water, contaminants, and pathogens into your body.

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While there aren’t federal regulations concerning high-pressure waterjetting, that doesn’t mean companies are off the hook if something bad happens. OSHA’s General Duty Clause makes it clear that a company must provide a safe work environment by protecting employees from “recognized hazards.” 

The lack of specific regulations shouldn’t be viewed as a “get out of jail free card,” says Gary Toothe, training manager for Federal Signal’s Environmental Solutions Group. “They’re going to write you up whether they have a rule for it or not. You can also be cited for not following the manufacturer’s instruction. Every waterblast manufacturer refers people to the recommended practices of the WaterJet Technology Association.” 

They are published in WJTA’s Recommended Practices for the Use of Manually Operated High-Pressure Waterjetting Equipment, which was updated in 2013. 

Cut it out

The most obvious danger is a cut caused by the high-pressure water. It can cut through steel, so it is powerful enough to amputate body parts. “Most people don’t understand that every waterblast cut is also a fluid injection,” Toothe adds. “Most people aren’t blasting with potable water.” 

At just 12 gallons per minute, a waterjet cut lasting one second will inject a quart of dirty water, contaminants, and pathogens into your body. “We don’t usually waterblast dirt; it's petroleum, plastics, paper and pulp, shipbuilding, automotive. If they get a cut, some of that material they were blasting will get into their body.” 

Since all hoses are reinforced with wire, a broken hose means there are also broken wires that can cause further injury. Every waterblasting cut is a reportable injury because you have to be treated for possible infection. According to a WJTA study, treatment within four hours means a 98 percent chance that you won’t get an infection. That drops to 80 percent after one day, and 40 percent if you wait two days. 

Being struck

An out-of-control hose poses extreme risk if a hose or coupling fails without a proper whip check — like a fire hose dropped by a firefighter. “You can literally be beaten to death by a rubber hose,” Toothe says. 

Two deaths in 2007 raised awareness of his local Region 4 OSHA office. One man was killed when a lance turned around in a pipe and came back out, entering his chest. Another was killed in a tank when a shotgun lance got away from him. The trigger failed to disengage and the man’s femoral artery was cut. 

Increased normal worksite hazards

Slips, trips and falls are the most common sources of worker injury. Running hoses and lances around the site and adding water increases the risk. “If you’re blasting petroleum, you have oil and water which is really slippery. If you’re blasting in winter, you’re creating your own black ice.” 

Protective plastic suits prevent the body from cooling down through perspiration so there is a risk of heat exhaustion. “I recommend a recovery area where people can stay cool or warm, depending on the season, change into dry clothes, get hydrated, and have someone check their condition before going back to work.” 

Lack of barricades

Toothe maintains that not enough attention is paid to properly limiting access to waterjetting work areas. Most people, he has found, just pick a distance that seems safe, such as 5 or 6 feet. “The proper distance is when water leaving the work area no longer has enough pressure to cause an injury,” he says. “There is no set answer, but you can easily calculate it based on your pressure and flow.” 

Much is understood about the dangers of waterblasting and how to protect workers. Yet, there are deaths every year. “All of the dangers we talk about,” says Toothe, “only happen when you fail to follow the rules.”


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