ALTHOUGH traditionally a male-dominated profession, welding is increasingly becoming the domain of women. From mining to maritime, fabrication and beyond, women are making headway in every aspect of the industry.
First Cut, a leading South African provider of cutting, welding and grinding consumables and equipment, recently employed Thabelo ‘Thabi’ Rabedzwana, an experienced female welding specialist, to join the company’s new welding division. Rabedzwana is the company’s first female welder and safety trainer. She has recently been joined by Zelda Vorster, the welding division’s regional manager in Mpumalanga and their other ‘woman in welding’.
Rabedzwana joined the First Cut team as a Risk and Training Officer. With over 20 years of welding experience, she has highly sought-after welding industry knowledge and competence behind her. Not only is she a welder of many years’ experience; but she is also one of the only female advanced welding trainers and safety inspectors in the country.
Like many of her peers in the South African welding industry, Rabedzwana knew nothing about welding when she started her career. As a school leaver, her impressive technical skills secured an administrative position in a large local industrial company. After working her way through the ranks, she finally landed her dream position as a safety support specialist and trainer in the welding division of the same company, and has never looked back.
“I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my previous employer, who really believed in me. He realised that a woman is capable of bringing great skill to the welding space,” she said.
2015 saw Rabedzwana take her skills to yet another level when – after seeing a gap in the market for welding safety training – she boldly took the step to start her own company as a welding safety advisor and trainer.
“I could see that welders and boiler makers were not aware of the many hidden potential dangers in the welding process. This motivated me to set up my welding safety training business to do educate welders accordingly.”
In early 2021 when First Cut approached Rabedzwana to join their newly established welding division, she saw it as another great opportunity to share her wealth of skills.
For First Cut, breaking with convention and employing a woman welding trainer was an easy decision. “I truly believe in an approach of ‘the right horse for the right course’, and Thabi is one of the best at what she does,” said Wayne Labuschagne, New Business Development Manager in the welding division at First Cut.
“She can effectively communicate with everyone she meets – from welding engineers to operators on the factory floor – and this earns her the respect of all with whom she engages,” he adds.
Rabedzwana said although the number of female welders is increasing, overall South Africa has yet to see a real groundswell in this regard – particularly in smaller companies.
“This can be attributed to a lack of knowledge about welding as an industry for women. Saying that, government has recently passed legislation which enables women to opt for welding as a career, which has made a significant difference to public awareness,” she explains.
Rabedzwana remarks that students are often shocked when they realise that a woman will be their facilitator and assessor. “However this perception quickly changes when they realise I know a lot about welding and can teach them a lot!”
Customers appreciate her training and interaction with their welders; and the fact that she can speak several African languages – a very powerful training aid and differentiator.
With over a decade of successful financial and sales management within the welding sector behind her, First Cut’s Regional Sales Manager for Mpumalanga Zelda Vorster – in common with her colleague Thabelo Rabedzwana – is also driven by a passion for safety.
“In the welding sector, consistency and safety are key: all equipment must comply with prescribed industry safety standards. Welders need to follow prescribed procedures and align with the standard required – which for welding in South Africa is SANS 10238. Operators also need to use equipment that is in good working condition and not damaged,” Vorster said.
“However, over the years, I have seen that this is often not the case. Welders frequently weld with damaged or incorrect equipment; or ‘cut corners’, not bothering with safety items such as flashback arrestors. When queried, they maintain that they have always worked this way, and nothing has happened.
“This is what motivates me to educate customers about the potential risks of poorly-maintained or incorrectly-used equipment – and what we can provide to improve their overall welding safety – not to mention their productivity,” Vorster said.