Underwater Welding Career Information
I t is awe-inspiring that today's technological advances allow welding to be performed underwater. But, although modern equipment and work environments are held to extreme safety regulations, this occupation does involve significant risks. Therefore, it's important to gain a full understanding of the field, especially of what it takes to be safe and successful, before embarking on this career path.
So, what does this watery work environment involve? Is it the best career match for you? Keep reading to gain comprehensive information about the challenging and fascinating field of underwater welding.
What is an Underwater Welder?
An underwater welder is someone who performs vital work related to various industrial applications, including building offshore oil platforms, repairing ships, and maintaining underwater pipelines. Underwater welders must have advanced skills in both diving and welding, including various specialized underwater welding techniques.
What Does an Underwater Welder Do?
Underwater welders are highly trained in both professional diving and welding in order to perform welding tasks in an underwater environment. They work with specialized welding equipment that is designed for safe use underwater without high risk of electric shock.
Although trained in various techniques, underwater welders perform tasks that can essentially be grouped into two classifications:
- Means that the welding process involves being directly exposed to wet or fully submerged conditions
- Uses a special waterproof electrode that was invented in 1946
- Requires the welding power supply to be connected to the welding equipment through cables and hoses
- When performed at significant depths, requires a highly experienced underwater welder with specialized knowledge of ambient pressure and its effects on welds
- Most commonly uses shielded metal arc welding (SMAW) techniques
- Takes place underwater but is performed in a dry environment, usually called a hyperbaric chamber (an enclosed container that is submerged under water)
- Involves working within the hyperbaric chamber, which (similar to submarines) is pressurized to withstand underwater conditions
- Is performed by sealing the hyperbaric chamber around the structure that requires welding work
- Is usually restricted to maximum operational depths of 400 meters
- Can theoretically involve most welding processes but most commonly uses gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW)
Some of the duties that underwater welders take on can include:
- Repairing ships
- Maintaining oil platforms
- Inspecting, repairing, and maintaining underwater pipelines
- Salvaging shipwrecked vessels
- New construction projects, such as bridges
- Building, repairing, and maintaining telecommunications equipment beneath the floor of the ocean
In addition, underwater welders are often responsible for taking on a variety of tasks prior to actually performing any welding. Some of these duties can include:
- Inspecting, photographing, and creating maps of the work environment
- Researching and documenting all aspects of the prospective job
- Testing equipment and explosive materials
- Conducting experiments to ensure project viability and safety
Project length and working hours can vary greatly, depending on the scope of the project. Therefore, a job can range from just a few hours to days, months, or even years. However, it is important to note that, although the main purpose is the actual underwater welding task, the vast majority of time and effort is often spent on training, preparation, and safety precautions.
In addition, for safety reasons, underwater welders work with a team of trained professionals who remain on standby above the water and keep in constant contact in order to provide immediate assistance if, at any time, the welder ends up in danger.
What is the Difference Between Underwater Welding and Commercial Diving?
It is common for people to assume that underwater welding and commercial diving are the same thing. However, in reality, they are two completely different career fields. So, what are the main differences between underwater welding and commercial diving?
- An underwater welder concentrates solely on performing underwater welding. It is a specialized position that involves only welding tasks (as well as the preparation and follow-up).
- A commercial diver is someone who has the skills and training to handle a broader range of tasks in industries that involve working underwater. Some of the categories that fall under commercial diving include deep sea exploration, hazardous material diving, underwater welding, offshore oil and gas exploration, bridge construction and repair, and more.
There is sometimes a gray area between these two fields since commercial diving graduates often choose to pursue a career in one particular specialty (and underwater welding is one of their potential choices). So, while people can train in the broad area of commercial diving, they may decide, upon graduation, to pursue a specialized position instead of taking on the more varied and generalized duties of a commercial diver.
Are There Any Underwater Welding Education Requirements I Should Know About?
Underwater welding education requirements can seem overwhelming at first. Because underwater welding is basically the combination of two separate jobs in one, you must receive advanced training in multiple areas. Often, the key to success is just to concentrate on one step at a time. Here is a simplified breakdown of the most commonly required educational steps:
1- Complete a commercial diving program. It is not enough to simply learn how to dive. Sport or recreational dive programs do not cover important areas concerning offshore working conditions, diving equipment, or safety considerations. Commercial diving training is required.
2- Complete a welding program. Before you can learn how to perform welding underwater, you must first be capable of welding above ground. This makes welding training a required stop on your underwater welding educational journey.
3- Obtain underwater welding training. Once you have been trained in both commercial diving and welding, you are ready for specialized underwater welding training, which will teach you how to combine your skills, knowledge, and abilities and apply them to the field of underwater welding.
Although the different types of training mentioned above can take place separately in three different steps (i.e., by taking three different programs), it is also possible to find underwater welding training that includes all of the above areas within one comprehensive program.
In addition, different training options exist for different situations. For example, if you are already a certified welder but want to expand your abilities and prepare to specialize in underwater welding, then you can skip the general welding requirements and concentrate solely on commercial diving and underwater welding training. The opposite is also true: If you are already a certified commercial diver, then you can skip that segment of the training and pursue training in welding and underwater welding.
It is also important to note that, separate from training programs, multiple certifications are typically required to work as a professional underwater welder. And, in order to keep your certifications current, ongoing education is often required. You can find more in-depth information about certification further on in this article.
What Can I Expect to Learn at an Underwater Welding School?
Once you have successfully completed any necessary prerequisites and enrolled in an underwater welding program, you can focus on obtaining the specialized skills, theoretical background, and safety knowledge required to become an underwater welder.
Generally, most programs will include theoretical training related to:
- Underwater welding procedures for both wet and dry welds
- Various underwater structures, including ships, offshore commercial equipment, oil platforms, bridges, pipelines, and more
- Welding and electrode terminology
- Welding conduciveness of various materials and common weld defects
- Safety principles related to proper diving techniques, underwater welding procedures, emergency procedures, and much more
- Information about underwater welding environments, including common sea creatures and plants
Once you have a solid base of knowledge, the next part of the curriculum generally involves hands-on training in:
- Preparation tasks, including map making, research, and documentation
- Proper usage of commercial diving apparel and equipment
- Proper usage of underwater welding equipment, from sledgehammers to pry bars to electric-powered welding tools
- Types of welding techniques, such as horizontal, vertical, overhead, t-joint, and line
- Safe preparation of the underwater welding environment in wet and dry conditions
- Quality control and quality assurance tasks
When it comes to actually performing underwater welding, some schools have access to real off-site underwater welding environments, while others create onsite replicas of offshore or inland settings.
In addition, since certification is required to pursue employment in the field, most programs will also dedicate a large portion of training to certification preparation.
What is the Cost of Underwater Welding School?
The cost of underwater welding school can vary greatly from school to school, and average tuition rates can be difficult to pin down. However, you can reasonably expect to spend between $15,000 and $20,000 in tuition, plus additional costs for equipment.
How Long is Underwater Welding School?
Like cost, the length of underwater welding school can vary widely and is affected by multiple factors such as education level and length of program. It can also depend on what the school's prerequisites involve. If commercial diving and general welding are a big part of the curriculum, the program will generally be longer—anywhere from two to five years. On the flip side, a more specialized program that concentrates solely on underwater welding skills can sometimes be completed in as few as six months.
Is Certification Required for Underwater Welders?
Various certifications are required to work as an underwater welder and can include:
Commercial Diving Physical Examination
- Administered by the Association of Diving Contractors International (ACDI).
- Can be performed by any licensed physician, but it is recommended that you find a physician with knowledge in hyperbaric and/or diving medicine.
- Includes recording of medical history, a physical examination, as well as laboratory tests and/or x-rays and clinical tests.
- May need to include psychiatric and temperament appraisal.
Commercial Diver Certification Card
- Administered by ACDI.
- Application requirements can vary depending on the type of certification card you are pursuing, but all certifications require that you first complete a commercial diving program.
- Common application requirements for those interested in underwater welding can include a set number of field days, a set number of working dives, and the successful completion of an exam.
- These requirements must have been met within the past 24 months of the application date.
American Welding Society Certified Welder
- Performance-based, with no restrictions regarding prerequisite courses or certifications.
- Entails making an appointment at an accredited test facility and performing a weld that must be approved by an AWS Certified Welding Inspector.
- Continued certification requires that you follow certification maintenance procedures and submit verification forms every six months.
What is the Average Underwater Welding Salary?
According to the American Welding Society (AWS), an average underwater welding salary is difficult to calculate because the majority of people in the field are paid on a project-by-project basis (not based on a set annual salary).
Other factors that can affect pay include:
- Diving depth required for a project
- Dive method used during a project
- The diving environment that a project is located in
That being said, the AWS does state that it's not uncommon for underwater welders to make between $100,000 and $200,000 per year. But it's important to note that these estimates are based on experienced workers, and entry-level employees will more than likely start at much lower annual earnings, which can increase in proportion to experience gained.
What is the Job Outlook for Underwater Welders?
The American Welding Society (AWS) states that the demand for underwater welders can fluctuate depending on supply and demand—just like any other field. Recently, however, the demand has been increasing due to multiple factors, including:
- Deep-sea oil and gas development
- Marine infrastructure repair and development
It's important to keep in mind that the most experienced and skilled underwater welders will be the most in-demand. Entry-level underwater welders may require patience and determination to break into the field. However, you can greatly improve your job prospects by choosing an accredited underwater welding school, ensuring the program features a maximum of hands-on training and experience, and pursuing the necessary certifications. In addition, when you are first starting out, it's important to be flexible about location. If you are willing to move to where the work is, you are much more likely to secure a position.
What are the Most Important Traits Needed to Be an Underwater Welder?
Aside from the skills and knowledge gained during underwater welding training, there are natural traits (which generally cannot be taught) that tend to be associated with successful underwater welders.
Some of these traits include:
- Being comfortable in the water. While it's a no-brainer that you must have advanced diving skills, those who are successful in the field tend to be the ones who (aside from straight technical diving skills) are totally at ease in the water. They are usually life-long swimming enthusiasts who feel more at home in the water than out of it.
- Staying humble. No matter how much experience or training you have, dangers will always exist in this field, and there is no room for overconfidence or ego.
- Playing nice with others. Teamwork is essential. Because of the risks involved in the field, you need to build trust and camaraderie so that you are comfortable relying on your team, and they are confident in being able to rely on you.
- Keeping a cool head. Probably the most important of all the traits is being able to stay calm during any situation. When you are hundreds of feet below the water and unable to come to the surface quickly due to the risk of decompression sickness ("the bends"), panic is not an option.
What are the Pros and Cons of Becoming an Underwater Welder?
Many regulations exist to keep underwater welding as safe as possible, effectively controlling any chance of danger. Nevertheless, some risk will always be involved when you are diving and working with electric-powered equipment beneath the water. However, when it comes right down to it, the level of risk is relatively low the majority of the time. And, for most underwater welders, their love of the job far outweighs any risks.
That being said, it is important to understand the pros and cons of the job.
- There's no denying that a little bit of risk comes with a whole lot of excitement and a powerful sense of adventure.
- Working underwater, especially in offshore environments, is fascinating. The ocean always has been (and always will be) a constant source of undeniable mystery and awe.
- The technologies and equipment related to underwater welding are constantly being updated, and continuous learning can create a strong feeling of satisfaction.
- The continuous innovation in the field allows for more sophisticated and advanced engineering ideas to be brought to life. Witnessing this progress can be exhilarating.
- The prospect of a six-figure salary can be extremely enticing.
- You can have the opportunity to do extensive traveling—seeing new places, meeting new people, and gaining amazing experiences.
- Even when following strict precautions, there is risk of electric shock.
- Because of the need to work with a combination of hydrogen and oxygen, there is a risk of pockets of gas forming (due to the high-pressure depth) and causing an explosion.
- There are dangers related to any type of diving. They include risk of drowning due to equipment failure, ear/nose/sinus/lung damage due to pressure, decompression sickness, and more.
- The training to become an underwater welder can be intense and may require a significant amount of time and money to be invested.
- You are apt to spend significantly more time and energy preparing for a project and ensuring safety precautions are met than actually performing underwater welding.
- You may need to continuously travel in order to obtain steady work, which can be draining because it may mean not seeing family and friends very often.
What Should I Do Now?
If this article has piqued your interest in an underwater career, a great next step is to check out the available schools and programs in your area. This guide to underwater welding programs can be a valuable resource in helping you determine your educational and career path. Browse the available options today!
American Welding Society (AWS), website last visited on June 26, 2012.
AWS Subcommittee on Underwater Welding, website last visited on June 26, 2012.
Association of Diving Contractors International (ACDI), website last visited on June 26, 2012.
International Marine Contractors Association (IMCA), website last visited on June 13, 2012.
International Diving Schools Association (IDSA), website last visited on June 13, 2012.
United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), website last visited on June 13, 2012.