Welder respiratory PPE: control measures and responsibilities
Since welding fume was reclassified as “carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2017, the severe health effects of welding fume exposure have been well documented and widely recognised. These effects range from lung function abnormalities to stomach ulcers, kidney damage and several types of cancer. Where do things currently stand, what control measures should be taken and who is responsible for ensuring workers are protected?
The 2017 IARC reclassification increased awareness of the dangers of welding fume and is an important step in the right direction for the industry at large; however, it means little without proper action being taken. Recognising the health risks associated with welding fume exposure should encourage all employers of welders to review their risk assessments and revise their control measures. As such, there is a critical need to give workplaces clear and practical advice that can help to keep workers protected. Following such guidance can make staying safe straightforward, no matter how serious the risk.
What control measures should be taken?
In relation to the hierarchy of controls, personal protective equipment (PPE) is often referred to as the last resort. However, this is not tenable when it comes to welding, where suitable PPE must always be worn. In fact, the established consensus is that a combination of local exhaust ventilation (LEV) and respiratory PPE is the most practical and effective ‘product control’ method against welding fume for all workers in welding environments.
On the one hand, properly located LEV can capture welding fume directly at its source, which can not only protect the welder, but also all workers in close proximity to the welder. On the other hand, PPE for respiratory protection from welding fume is commonly available in two main forms: welding helmets with integrated respiratory protection and half mask respirators. According to the ‘2020 Welding fume and respiratory protection survey’ from AWS, 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. These are also mandatory within many businesses.
They have a required minimum protection factor (RMPF) of 50, meaning they supply a minimum 50 times cleaner air than the welder would otherwise be breathing unprotected. Simultaneously, the helmet itself protects the welder’s eyes and face from radiation and high-velocity particles. Built-in hard hats (safety helmets) and earmuffs are also available with certain PAPR systems, and this amounts to five possible levels of integrated welding protection (eye, face, respiratory, head, hearing).
Conversely, a disposable or reusable half-mask respirator can be worn underneath a welding helmet to provide an RMPF of 10 (ie, 10 times cleaner air than you would otherwise breathe unprotected). To ensure this level of protection, the welder must be fit tested (annually is recommended) and clean shaven to maintain an effective negative pressure seal. When compared to disposable and reusable half-face mask respiratory protection, then, PAPR systems provide superior respiratory protection (in the form of five times cleaner air) and enhanced comfort without the need for fit testing or a clean-shaven condition.
Who is responsible for ensuring workers are protected?
Put simply, the primary responsibility to ensure that workers are protected lies with their employer. This is reflected under both the Australian Work, Health and Safety Laws and the New Zealand Health and Safety at Work Regulations, which each list employers as financially responsible for providing PPE to workers. Moreover, when selecting PPE, the employer should consult with their workers, where reasonable. After all, given they are directly affected by the hazards, welders are entitled and well qualified to contribute to the decision-making process.
Thanks to court cases and research, the world has shifted to more of a health and safety focus. It’s now up to companies to update their approach to welding fume and welders’ protection.
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