Integrated welder safeguards: combo protection from fume and other hazards
Elimination and substitution give the highest level of worker protection and reliability in many industries but are often not practicable or possible when it comes to welding. Even when you can mitigate risk: if there is welding to be done, there will be welding fume. This makes personal protective equipment vital — integrated powered air purifying respirators in particular, which offer users multiple levels of protection from fume and other hazards welders face, and have distinct advantages over other protective options, such as half mask respirators.
The 2017 International Agency for Research on Cancer reclassification of welding fume as ‘carcinogenic to humans’ simply confirmed what was already known — welding fume is extremely bad for health and workplaces must protect their workers. The precedent for workers compensation based on a link between welding fume and cancer was established in the Australian courts back in 2014, opening the door for future compensation claims. Excessive exposure to welding fume can cause multiple types of cancer, including lung, larynx and urinary tract. “Welders present, on average, a 43% increased risk of lung cancer when compared with those who have never welded or been exposed to welding fume,” Manoj Kumar Honaryar et al. write in a 2019 study published in Occupational & Environmental Medicine.
“This increased risk of lung cancer is regardless of the type of steel welded, the welding process and independent of exposure to smoking.” Aside from cancer, welding fume can also cause serious long-term health effects like lung function abnormalities, including bronchial asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pneumoconiosis and other pulmonary fibrosis, as well as stomach ulcers, kidney damage and nervous system damage. Recognising welding fume as carcinogenic and the other associated health risks should encourage all employers of welders to review their risk assessments and revise their control measures to ensure that workers have the best protection available to them, inclusive of personal protective equipment (PPE) that safeguards welders from a combination of hazards.
Exposure limits are just the beginning
The exposure standards in Australia and New Zealand “do not identify a dividing line between a healthy or unhealthy working environment”, according to Safe Work Australia’s ‘Guidance on the interpretation of workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants’ document. They simply establish a legal maximum upper limit. “Therefore, exposure standards should not be considered as representing an acceptable level of exposure to workers” (ibid.). For example, a welder operating within the workplace exposure standards for general welding fume (5 mg/m3) could still inhale up to 11 grams of a carcinogenic substance (welding fume) every year (based on the typical respiratory rate of 20 litres of air per minute or 2300 m3 of air per year). Moreover, an Australian or New Zealand welder operating under the legal workplace exposure limits for welding fume in Australia is exposed to 4 times the level of a known carcinogen than that of a German welder working under the TGRS 528 (1.25 mg/m3) exposure limits in Germany.
Action is required.
Mitigation of risk
The important point to understand is that while the risk posed by welding fume is serious, keeping yourself safe can be straightforward. As a result, there is a critical need to give workplaces clear and practical advice to ensure their workers are suitably protected. This begins with taking steps to mitigate the risks where possible.
Examples of mitigating risk include:
- Removing surface coatings on materials.
- Changing to less hazardous materials (both consumables and base materials).
- Using a welding technique that produces less fume (different application or working with lower amps).
- Where possible, workers positioning themselves to ensure they keep their heads away from the plume and also ensure any ventilation airflow moves the welding fume away from the breathing zone, not through it.
While elimination and substitution give the highest level of protection and reliability in many industries, they are often not practicable or possible when it comes to the welding industry. Substituting materials can result in quality issues and using lower amps is often not an option. Even when you can mitigate risk, if there is welding to be done, there will be welding fume. Welding fume is inherent in the process of welding. As a result, we see that in the welding industry, the higher levels of control can often only mitigate the risks associated with welding fume, making the lower levels of control essential.
PPE is often referred to as the last resort in terms of welding fume control. However, when it comes to welding, suitable PPE must always be worn. PPE for respiratory protection from welding fume is commonly available in two main forms:
- Welding helmets with integrated respiratory protection.
- Half mask respirators.
Welding helmets with integrated respiratory protection
According to survey data, welding helmets with integrated powered air purifying respirators (PAPR) are the most widely used form of respiratory protection among welders in Australia and New Zealand and are mandatory within many businesses. They have a required minimum protection factor (RMPF) of 50, which means they supply breathing air a minimum 50 times cleaner than the welder would otherwise be breathing unprotected, while simultaneously protecting the welder’s eyes and face from radiation and high velocity particles. Integrated hard hats (safety helmets) and earmuffs are also available with these systems to give welders five levels of protection (eye, face, respiratory, head, hearing).
With a flip-up welding helmet with powered air respiratory protection, welders can enjoy completely clear and uninhibited views of their workpiece and surroundings while maintaining their desired level of respiratory protection with no breathing resistance. The powered air respirator goes where the welder goes, allowing unrestricted movement around the workplace with clear vision, comfort and uninterrupted eye, face and respiratory protection. A recent study conducted within a large manufacturing company with more than 1500 employees, including 600 certified welders, found that “foreign body eye injuries decreased over 70% year-on-year in areas that implemented the PAPRs with integrated flip-up auto darkening welding helmets”. Additionally, the same study also found that “worker compensation claims decreased markedly while employee morale increased substantially”.
PAPRs can provide protection to welders using the most common materials (aluminium, stainless steel, galvanised steel, etc) and applications (MMA, TIG, GMAW, FCAW, SAW) where there is an environment with general shop ventilation. In restricted spaces, a welding helmet with integrated supplied air respiratory protection will be effective. (A ‘restricted space’ for the purposes of this article refers to a situation where 1) local exhaust ventilation (LEV) fume extraction is not possible due to a limitation of space, 2) general plant air (dilution) cannot effectively reach the welder and 3) the space is not a confined space as defined by AS2865.)
Half mask respirators
Disposable or reusable half mask respirators can be worn underneath a welding helmet to provide an RMPF of 10. The welder must be fit tested (annually is recommended) and clean-shaven to ensure an effective negative pressure seal. When compared to disposable and reusable half face mask respiratory protection, PAPRs provide superior respiratory protection and comfort and do not require fit testing or a complete clean-shaven condition.
|Welding helmets with integrated respiratory protection||Half mask respirators|
|Protection factor (RMPF)||50 (or 100+*)||10|
|Fit testing required||No||Yes, recommended annually|
|Requirement to be clean-shaven||No||Yes|
|Comfort considerations||Steady flow of fresh air helps to cool and reduces seat and heat build-up. Approximately 1 kg worn on the welder’s waist.||The negative pressure seal can result in an uncomfortable fit in welding conditions (sweat, heat). Can interfere with the welding helmet.|
|Cost considerations||A PAPR draws air into the system from behind the welder away from the greatest concentration of welding fume.
For this reason, the filters on a PAPR will typically need to be changed far less frequently than a disposable respirator or reusable respiratory filters.
Long term, a PAPR can be the more economical solution.
|While half mask respirators have a lower upfront cost, they can be the more expensive long-term option.
Worn on the welder’s face in close proximity to the plume, filters can become loaded extremely quickly in certain welding environments.
*Welding helmets with integrated powered air respiratory protection have an RMPF of 50. Welding helmets with integrated supplied air respiratory protection have an RMPF of 100+.
Practical ventilation controls
Ventilation can assist in reducing exposure to welding fume and other airborne contaminants. There are two key practical ventilation controls you can introduce: local exhaust ventilation and dilution or ‘general shop’ ventilation.
Local exhaust ventilation (LEV)
A properly located LEV system can capture welding fume at the source, which is the most effective way to collect and remove fumes. Popular options consist of fixed installations, portable systems and on-gun extraction.
It is recommended that respiratory PPE is always worn in combination with LEV.
Dilution ventilation (general shop ventilation)
‘General shop ventilation’, as it is known in the industry, occurs when contaminants released into the workshop mix with air flowing through the room. Dilution is not as effective as LEV in controlling welding fume exposure as large volumes of dilution air may be required and it is extremely difficult to control individual exposure near the contaminant source where dilution has not yet taken place. This option should only be used to control low levels of welding fume.
It is recommended that respiratory PPE is always worn in combination with general shop ventilation. It should be noted that natural ventilation (eg, wind) is not a reliable way of diluting or dispersing welding fume.
Who is responsible for ensuring workers are protected?
The employer has the primary responsibility to ensure that welding fume exposure is controlled, and welders are protected. The two key points regarding employer responsibility are as follows:
- If employers are unsure whether the welding fume exposures at their workplace exceed the relevant exposure standard, occupational health and safety regulations require that they must ensure air monitoring is carried out.
- Under both the Australian Model Work Health and Safety Laws and the New Zealand Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, the employer is financially responsible for providing PPE to workers and must not charge anyone for using PPE.
When selecting suitable PPE, the employer, where reasonable, should consult with the welders. A welder’s knowledge, experience and personal preferences improve the overall decision-making process. As someone who is directly affected by welding hazards, a welder is entitled to take part in the consultation process and selection of suitable PPE. Personal preferences are the key to user acceptance — so welders should look for gear that they feel comfortable wearing. Welders should aim to educate themselves on the risks, understand the appropriate PPE available and look to become involved in the consultation process and ultimate selection of suitable PPE.
The world has shifted to more of a health and safety focus — the result of court cases and research. Subsequently, Australian and New Zealand companies are now completely changing their stance on welding fume and welders’ protection. After all, if the proper precautions are taken and followed, protecting yourself and/or your welders can be straightforward.
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