Welding involves joining metal together by applying heat and often a filler metal. The welding process is essential in many manufacturing, construction and maintenance sectors and therefore is an area of concern for OSHA. The filler metal, base material, coatings and/or gases utilized in welding can emit various forms of particulate into the environment, often referred to as welding fume. Welding fume has the potential to be hazardous, depending on the fume’s composition and concentration.
Respiratory solutions ideal for Welding Applications
|Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPR)|
|Supplied Air Respirators (SAR)|
There are numerous elements found in welding fume, with hexavalent chromium and zinc causing the most concern for welders because of its commonality in welding environments. Hexavalent chromium is present when welding on stainless steel or using stainless steel filler metals. OSHA has mandated that prolonged exposure to fumes containing hexavalent chromium be kept below an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA) Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) of 5 µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter of air) with an Action Level of 2.5 µg/m3. Zinc, the other common element in welding environments, is a byproduct of welding steel with a galvanized coating and has an 8-hour TWA PEL of 5 mg/m3 (milligrams per cubic meter of air).
OSHA requires companies to maintain exposure levels below identified PELs by implementing engineering and work practice controls. Engineering controls require changes such as material substitution, isolation, industrial ventilation or source capture (fume extractors or fume extraction welding guns). According to OSHA, engineering controls are preferred because of their ability to remove contaminated air at the source prior to spreading throughout the facility and reaching a worker’s breathing zone. Work practice controls require adjustments in the way a task is performed like changing an operator’s position. If these controls are not feasible or do not reduce exposures below established PELs, then personal protective equipment (PPE) solutions, such as respirators, are needed.
If respiratory protection is the control measure for welding fumes, OSHA 29 CFR 1910.134 should be followed to establish and maintain effective respiratory programs. OSHA requires companies to evaluate their facilities to ensure the respiratory program is being followed and also to review the program if workplace conditions change or on an annual basis. Selecting the proper respiratory protection involves understanding the hazard, relevant work restrictions or requirements, and personal factors such as comfort and productivity. Any respirator chosen should be NIOSH-certified.
A note: every welding environment is unique and should be evaluated by a certified safety professional or industrial hygienist to determine the appropriate course of action. This article is presented for awareness and educational purposes and does not replace professional consultation.
There are three primary types of respiratory solutions ideal for welding applications:
Selecting the correct respiratory solution for your environment is critical. According to OSHA, one of the most frequent errors in respirator selection is choosing the wrong type of respiratory protection, potentially leading to employees being exposed to large concentrations of harmful contaminants. Once the proper type of respirator is determined using OSHA guidelines, companies are encouraged to bring in samples of various sizes, brands and styles for employees to try on.
Respirators only provide the protection specified if they fit correctly, and in some cases, multiple sizes or styles may be necessary to properly protect all affected employees. Respirator manufacturers have gone to great lengths in recent years to reduce the size, weight and physical presence of these solutions, making them easier to use and less of a burden on the welder. Aside from the obvious protection benefits, increased comfort and productivity that respirators offer, in many circumstances, have improved the total work experience of both employers and employees. Finding respiratory solutions that provide optimal fit, comfort and performance can result in safer, more productive environments as well as increased job satisfaction and employee morale.