Sheet Metal Fabrication: Process, Hazards, and Safe Work Practices

sheet metal fabrication factory

Sheet metal fabrication is a process widely used in modern manufacturing due to its versatility, durability, and cost-effectiveness. It involves shaping and assembling sheet metals into various structures and components for the automotive, construction, aerospace, and consumer goods industries such as creating roofing and gutters. However, like any other process, sheet metal fabrication is accompanied by significant safety risks.

In 2022, the incidence rate of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses in this industry was approximately 4.3 per 100 full-time workers, notably higher than the average for all private industries. Common injuries in sheet metal fabrication processes frequently involve the hands and fingers, due to handling sharp metal edges or operating machinery, and eye injuries from metal shavings or debris.

Creating a safe working environment is crucial not only for protecting workers but also for enhancing productivity and ensuring high product quality. This article provides comprehensive insights into sheet metal fabrication, focusing on the manufacturing process, associated hazards, and best practices for maintaining safety in the workplace.

What is Sheet Metalworking?

Sheet metalworking is the process of manipulating thin metal sheets into various shapes and structures through cutting, bending, and assembling techniques. It is a fundamental aspect of manufacturing, enabling the creation of parts and products used in diverse industries. The sheet metal materials commonly used in metalworking include steel, aluminum, copper, and brass, with sheet thickness ranging from 0.006 to 0.25 inches. Thinner gauges provide greater malleability, making them ideal for intricate designs and detailed work, while thicker gauges are well-suited for heavy-duty applications requiring additional strength and durability.

3 Types of Sheet Metal Fabrication

    • Cutting Sheet Metal: Dividing sheet metal materials into desired shapes and sizes using tools like shears, lasers, or plasma cutters
    • Forming Sheet Metal: Bending, folding, or stretching the metal without removing material to achieve the required shape
    • Joining Sheet Metal: Assembling sheet metal parts through welding, riveting, or using adhesives to create a cohesive structure

While anyone can learn the basics of metal fabrication, obtaining metal fabrication certifications is crucial for ensuring quality, safety, and industry compliance. Certifications such as those offered by the American Welding Society (AWS) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) ensure that fabricators meet high standards of quality and safety. Certified professionals are trained to handle the equipment safely, understand the properties of different sheet metals, and adhere to industry-specific guidelines, reducing the risk of accidents and improving the overall quality of the fabricated products.

Benefits of Sheet Metal Fabrication Limitations of Sheet Metal Fabrication
  • High strength-to-weight ratio, making it ideal for lightweight yet strong components.
  • Versatility in design, allowing for the creation of complex and varied shapes.
  • Cost-effective for large production runs due to the efficiency of the sheet metal fabrication processes involved.
  • Susceptibility to corrosion, particularly for sheet metals like steel if not properly treated.
  • High initial setup costs for machinery and tooling, can be a barrier for small-scale operations.
  • Limited complexity for certain shapes, as extremely intricate designs may require additional processes or technologies.

 

Sheet Metal Fabrication Process

The sheet metal fabrication process involves various techniques to transform flat sheets of metal into complex structures and parts. These techniques, often combined in different sequences, allow for precise customization and high-quality results tailored to specific industrial applications.

Bending

Sheet metal bending involves using a press brake or similar tool to apply force to a metal sheet, causing it to bend at specific angles. This process is essential for forming precise shapes and contours in the metal. The resulting bends are used to create parts with the desired structural and functional characteristics.

Laser Cutting

Metal laser cutting employs a high-powered laser beam to cut through sheet metals with pinpoint accuracy. The laser cutter melts or vaporizes the metal along the designated path, producing clean, precise edges. This sheet metal cutting technique is ideal for intricate designs and complex shapes that require high precision.

Welding

Welding joins sheet metal components by melting the edges and fusing them together, often with the addition of a filler material. This creates strong, permanent bonds between the pieces. Various welding methods, such as MIG, TIG, and arc welding, are used depending on the materials and requirements.

Cutting

Cutting processes like shearing, sawing, and water jet cutting are used to cut metal sheets into specific shapes and sizes. Shearing involves a straight, linear cut, while sawing and water jet cutting can produce more complex shapes. Each method is selected based on the precision and type of cut needed.

Punching

Punching uses a punch press to force a punch through the sheet metal, creating holes or specific shapes. The punched-out material, known as the slug, is removed, leaving the desired pattern. This method is efficient for producing repetitive features like mounting holes.

Stamping

Stamping involves pressing a sheet metal part into a die to form specific shapes or patterns. The die shapes the metal with high precision, making stamping ideal for mass production of uniform parts. It is commonly used for creating detailed and complex designs quickly and efficiently.

Finishing

Finishing processes in metalworking such as painting, powder coating, and anodizing are applied to enhance the appearance and durability of the sheet metal parts. These treatments protect the metal from corrosion, wear, and environmental damage. Finishing also improves the aesthetic appeal, making the products more marketable.

 

Common Sheet Metal Fabrication Hazards

Sheet metal fabrication involves numerous manufacturing processes that can pose significant safety risks if not properly assessed or managed. Understanding these hazards is essential for preventing accidents and ensuring a safe working environment.

Sharp Edges and Cuts: Sharp edges and cuts often occur when handling or working with raw or processed metal sheets. Common mistakes include not wearing protective gloves or mishandling the metal sheet, leading to serious lacerations. The best way to eliminate being cut or having contact with sharp edges is to use tools to eliminate the worker from carrying or handling the material with their hands. There are lifting, moving, and positioning tools, magnets, clamps, and hoists designed to move sheet metal parts so that workers aren’t exposing their hands, arms, fingers, and extremities to sharp edges.

Pinch Points and Crushing Hazards: Pinch points and crushing hazards are prevalent around machinery such as press brakes and rollers. Accidents typically happen when operators' hands or fingers get caught in moving parts due to inattention or lack of proper machine guarding. Workers must utilize material handling tools and keep their hands away from pinch and crush hazards, train on hazard recognition, and line of fire.

In addition, all working machines that operate with metal fabrication must have guards against pinch, crush, and rotating equipment hazards. Typically, machines are equipped with machine guards, safety interlocks, light curtains, emergency stop buttons, and two-hand controls. Otherwise, a safety expert or machine guard expert can conduct a machine guard assessment.

Flying Debris: Sheet metal fabricators frequently encounter dust, metal shavings, and particles from welding, grinding, buffing, and sanding. These activities present a high risk for eye injuries, especially when workers remove or adjust their PPE, sweat, or rub their faces with dirty gloves. Debris may be controlled by water, ventilation, PPE, as well as good housekeeping and maintenance plans.

Additionally, sheet metal manufacturers must be aware that airborne metal particulates, especially those that involve chrome content when welding could produce Hexavalent Chromium. This hazardous substance requires some form of ventilation or respiratory protection to safeguard workers from exposure. Hex Chrome, an airborne carcinogen, is usually produced when welding on steel with high chrome percentages.

Noise Exposure: Noise exposure in metal fabrication shops can lead to hearing loss over time. This hazard usually arises from prolonged exposure to loud machinery without adequate hearing protection. Noise must be controlled through engineering measures such as using quieter machines, adding insulation, and increasing distance from the source.

Employers should assess the 8-hour time-weighted average sound level to determine if hearing protection is necessary. If so, they must provide protection that reduces the average noise exposure to below 85 decibels TWA. Long-term exposure to noise causes irreversible hearing damage and tinnitus (ringing in the ears). Hiring an industrial hygiene expert for noise assessment can be beneficial in managing this risk.

Electrical Hazards: These hazards occur when working with electrical equipment or machinery in the sheet metal fabrication process. Many, if not all, metal fabrication facilities use machines that require high-voltage electricity, often 3-phase, 480 volts or higher. This introduces significant hazards to all employees.

It is crucial to implement maintenance, lockout/tagout (LOTO) procedures, and electrical safety measures. Additionally, compliance with the National Electrical Code (NEC) and state and local electrical codes is essential for installation, fire protection, and design.

Fire Hazards: Fire hazards are present during welding and cutting operations, where sparks can ignite flammable materials. Common errors include inadequate fire safety measures, such as the absence of fire extinguishers or poor housekeeping.

 

Safe Work Practices in Sheet Metal Fabrication

laser cutting for automotive components

Implementing safe work practices in sheet metal fabrication is crucial for risk reduction and ensuring the well-being of workers. Adhering to these practices not only prevents accidents but also promotes a culture of metalworking safety and efficiency.

Machine Guarding

Machine guarding in sheet metal manufacturing involves installing physical barriers on machinery to prevent accidental contact with moving parts. This includes rotating equipment, light curtains, interlocks, two-hand controls, and emergency stop buttons. Companies can also have assessments completed by industry machine guard experts to ensure proper safety measures are in place. To maximize safety, employers should attach e-stop push button lockout devices, preventing accidental re-energizing of machinery during maintenance or repairs.

Lockout/Tagout Procedures

Lockout tagout procedures are required when machines are shut down and preparing for maintenance. Unless a machine is in the “exclusive” control of the maintenance worker, LOTO devices must be in place. These procedures typically involve isolating electrical, pneumatic, hydraulic, and thermal energy sources commonly found in sheet metal fabrication. All energy sources, including potential energy, must be isolated and locked out before maintenance begins to ensure safety.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Wearing appropriate PPE, such as gloves, ANSI Z87.1 certified safety glasses, hearing protection, and respiratory masks, is vital to protect against various hazards in sheet metal manufacturing. Workers must know not only how to use PPE but also how to maintain it. From personal experience, workers often neglect to clean their PPE, resulting in the accumulation of dust and small metal pieces. By conducting regular PPE assessments and educating on cleanliness and maintenance, we have noted a significant decrease in injuries.

Proper Lifting Techniques

Training workers on proper ergonomics, using safe lifting techniques like lifting with the legs, and stretching before lifting are the most common ways to reduce the risk of strain and injury. Using lifting equipment, such as hoists and cranes, helps prevent musculoskeletal injuries. Soft tissue injuries that are not promptly treated or assessed can lead to more serious long-term injuries if left untreated.

Housekeeping

Maintaining a clean and organized metalworking area reduces the risk of trips, slips, and falls. Accumulation of dust can lead to combustible dust and explosion hazards if not properly controlled. Sweeping shop floors, especially concrete, can stir up sand that may cause silicosis over time. Employers must ensure housekeeping efforts do not increase exposure risks. Washing down with water is effective, as long as it does not contaminate drinking water with metals or chemicals.

Ventilation

Adequate ventilation systems remove harmful fumes like Carbon Monoxide (CO) and airborne particles from the work environment, ensuring air quality and worker safety. Regular maintenance of ventilation systems is necessary to keep them functioning effectively. In hot regions, proper ventilation can also help keep the facility cooler during the summer months.

Fire Safety

Fire extinguishers, fire suppression systems, sprinklers, and deluge systems are essential for protecting fabrication equipment and assets. At the same time, implementing fire safety measures, such as keeping flammable materials away from ignition sources, conducting regular fire drills, and supplementing fire safety signs, is critical in boosting fire safety in sheet metal fabrication. Employers should involve architects and fire marshals in the design and installation if unsure about the requirements. These systems must undergo regular inspections—monthly, annually, and at other specified intervals—by qualified and certified companies.

Emergency Preparedness

Employers must develop comprehensive emergency action plans and collaborate with local fire, emergency, and law enforcement agencies to assess potential risks and response strategies. Providing access to first aid kits and emergency contact information is essential for swift responses. Employers should have a written plan, be prepared, and conduct annual drills for evacuations and emergency responses should be conducted to maintain preparedness.

 

Automation and Robotics in Metal Fabrication

The sheet metal fabrication industry is undergoing significant transformation through the integration of automation and robotics. These advancements enhance precision, efficiency, and safety, making sheet metal fabrication processes more consistent and reducing human error. Automation speeds up production, meeting the demand for high-quality, timely products, while robotics improve safety by taking over hazardous and repetitive tasks. This shift not only boosts productivity but also attracts a new generation of workers to the industry.

As a safety expert with extensive experience in the field, I can attest that conducting thorough machine guard assessments, introducing new tools, and implementing comprehensive training in proper lifting and handling techniques can significantly reduce hand and finger injuries by up to 90% in sheet metal forming processes. These strategies are essential for enhancing workplace safety and ensuring that employees are protected from common hazards associated with sheet metal fabrication.

 

FAQs about Sheet Metal Fabrication

What is cold rolled steel?

Cold rolled steel is steel that has been rolled at room temperature, below its recrystallization temperature. This process involves passing the steel through rollers to compress it and achieve the desired thickness. The cold rolling process increases the steel's strength and hardness through strain hardening, and it also results in a smoother surface finish compared to hot rolled steel.

What is the strongest sheet metal?

The strongest sheet metal commonly used is titanium. It has a high strength-to-weight ratio, excellent corrosion resistance, and is capable of withstanding extreme temperatures, making it ideal for aerospace and high-performance applications.

Other common metals used in metal fabrication:

  • Steel: High tensile strength
  • Aluminum: Good strength-to-weight ratio
  • Copper: Moderate tensile strength
  • Brass: Lower tensile strength

What is the cheapest type of sheet metal?

Cold Rolled Close Annealed (CRCA) steel is often considered the cheapest type of sheet metal. CRCA steel is processed by rolling the steel at room temperature and then annealing it to improve its ductility and reduce its hardness. This process results in a smooth surface finish and enhanced mechanical properties, making it cost-effective for many applications. While CRCA steel is affordable, it also provides good strength and formability, making it a popular choice for a wide range of industrial and consumer products.

How do I choose sheet metal material?

Choosing sheet metal material depends on factors like the application requirements, including strength, weight, corrosion resistance, and cost. Consider the specific needs of your project, such as environmental conditions, load-bearing requirements, and aesthetic preferences.

What are the skills of a sheet metal worker?

A sheet metal worker should have skills in reading blueprints and technical drawings, precise measuring and cutting, welding, and operating various machinery like press brakes and shears. Additionally, they should have strong problem-solving abilities, attention to detail, and knowledge of safety protocols.

The material provided in this article is for general information purposes only. It is not intended to replace professional/legal advice or substitute government regulations, industry standards, or other requirements specific to any business/activity. While we made sure to provide accurate and reliable information, we make no representation that the details or sources are up-to-date, complete or remain available. Readers should consult with an industrial safety expert, qualified professional, or attorney for any specific concerns and questions.

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Author: Steven Stogner

Steven Stogner is a seasoned safety professional with 14 years in sectors like heavy industrial construction and petrochemical. He is a Certified Safety Professional, skilled in incident analysis and root cause methodologies. Holding a BS in Industrial Technology from Southeastern Louisiana University, he is a recognized contributor to safety publications. At TRADESAFE, Steven enhances product development and supports the creation of key safety resources, strengthening the brand’s commitment to workplace safety.