Femke Rijpma

Femke Rijpma

Femke first came into contact with welding technology in her role as 3M Application Engineer. In order to better understand and help her clients, especially welders, Femke attended a welding training. Welding fascinated her so much that her employer allowed her to fully focus on the safety of welders.

Articles by Femke

Personal protection

Safety – What is it? Part 2

Instinctive natural behaviour How does our instinctive natural behaviour affect our safety in the modern industrial working environment? In other words: can we make good

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Safety – what is it?

Learning to weld

I got to go to welding school! I was going to learn to weld! Exciting! There the men and women of steel are trained to build metal machines, tankers, bridges and so on. I would learn different welding techniques and try them out. I was going to do all this because I had just become an Application Engineer at 3M. My specialty would be safety for welders, and I wanted to know what a welder experiences when he is working.

I was convinced that usefulness and necessity of protecting health would be self-evident. Boy, was I wrong! Just to be clear, everyone was doing a good job, but they weren’t consciously thinking about the subject safety at all! I saw people doing all kinds of things that I had just learned could cause a lot of problems:

  • Flipping down the welding shield with a nod so that your cervical vertebrae get a nice whack (it did look cool!);
  • having the welding torch on and then flipping the welding shield down;
  • barely using the extractor.

To be honest, I didn’t use the extractor either. After all, I got a beautiful helmet with a motor driven filter for clean air. There was only one other participant with such an advanced helmet. He turned out to be an employee at a large installation company and he had also been given the helmet by his employer. All the others had a helmet without respiratory protection. I actually felt very different from the others… and that wasn’t just because I’m a woman!

Also learn about safety?

One of the teachers was a former soldier and another had worked in shipping. They had a tough-guy-with-a-good-heart-mentality and had seen a lot of the world. Yet even for these men, the dangers a welder is exposed to were not top of mind. 

From conversations with the boys and men I got the impression that even employers often didn’t know what they were talking about when it came to welding, welders and possible dangers. It is a particular profession and a specific group of professionals. Health and safety were subjects that didn’t receive much attention. In fact, I didn’t really dare to discuss the subject of safety either. I felt like a nag and very spoiled with my beautiful helmet.

What did I actually know about safety?

I learned to weld a bit. I really liked TIG welding and gas welding was the coolest. The teachers were great. They could explain it well and were full of beautiful stories. But I went home with my head full of the subject of safety. My brain was spinning at full speed. What did I actually learn during these days at the welding school?

So I worked as an Application Engineer Personal Protective Equipment. Ok, I knew about the Personal Protective Equipment. I knew about the dangers, too. The experience in the welding school mainly taught me that I knew very little about safety. What is safety anyway? How do you actually get people to work safely? Gosh! I had to confess that I had no idea!

Back to my roots

As it goes in a new job, in no time I was swallowed up by everyday life again and the question got a bit lost in the background. Still, I saw the same kind of questions, problems and topics come to light with customers over and over again as in welding school. I also noticed that I couldn’t really give a good answer to a lot of questions from clients. Advising on products brought a short-term solution but often led to new questions and problems. I got the impression that personal protective equipment is a kind of band-aid on a wound. But which wound exactly?

Well, I am an archaeologist and physical anthropologist. I subconsciously look for the answers to these kinds of questions into the past. And one day a penny dropped. The dangers PPEs are supposed to protect against do not exist in our past. Those dangers are basically only about 200 years old! The industrial revolution brought with it a whole new spectrum of dangers. We humans have no natural behaviour to protect ourselves against these dangers. 

A different perspective

Maybe I should take a different look at the “what is safety?” question! After all, what did I remember most about the experience in welding school? The feeling of being a nag. The feeling of being so spoiled with my beautiful helmet. The feeling of not daring to raise the subject of safety. Feelings! That’s a social thing. It has to do with group dynamics and standards. And that in turn affects my behaviour. 

I tended to hide my helmet, I was ashamed of its luxury. I didn’t dare to talk about it, because I was afraid they’d find me annoying. Precisely the behaviour I later encountered at customers on the shop floor. That’s a very different and interesting starting point to look at the subject. I know there is danger, but I avoid talking about it. I know there is danger, but I tend to take it for granted because of social factors. Why is that? That’s what my investigation will be about!

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