May 31, 2010, marks OSHA’s deadline for workplaces to have solutions in place to drop exposure levels of hexavalent chromium [CR(VI)] below mandated levels. While building engineering and source capture are strong options, personal respirators can also protect workers on the front line.

Ultra Machine and Fabrication in Shelby, N.C., is a precision metal fabricator specializing in armor plate for military and defense vehicles. A new contract secured in early 2010 required welding MIL-A 46100 ballistic steel with a 307 stainless steel filler metal. When melted in the welding process, the anti-corrosive chromium contained in the stainless steel filler metal is transformed into hexavalent chromium [CR(VI)], a solid, microscopic, carcinogenic particle contained in stainless steel fumes that is thought to cause lung cancer, impair kidney function, and cause damage to the nose, throat, skin and eyes.

OSHA has mandated that prolonged exposure to fumes containing hexavalent chromium be kept below an 8-hour Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) of 5 μg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter) with an Action Level of 2.5 μg/m3. Controls must be in place by May 31, 2010, to ensure these results.

To protect its workers in this new application, Ultra weighed solutions in building design and personal protection equipment (PPE). This led to the purchase of 60 powered air purifying respirators, or PAPRs, which have not only met their safety needs, but have increased overall operator productivity and comfort.

Strong advocates for employee safety
“We’re a family-owned business,” says Frank Stewart, owner, Ultra Machine and Fabrication, “and we’ve had great opportunities to invest in our employees. We have a chapel, we have a gym, we’ve always covered our employees’ healthcare and we do everything we can to keep employees healthy and happy while providing a really nice place to work.”

While companies have many options (engineering, source capture, PPE) to protect employees and keep hexavalent chromium exposure at accepted levels, Ultra took a look at its entire operation and decided PAPRs were the most practical solution. “Based on our building design and workplace configurations, implementing an engineering control was not a practical solution,” says Bob Dawson, Ultra’s director of welding. The immediacy of the project combined with the quick accessibility of the PAPR units made this the most expedient and practical option, and once units were brought in for testing, the decision to go with a PAPR was made quickly.

“Within just a few days of the guys sampling them, we knew this was going to be a buy for us because they felt so much better,” says Dawson.

The health argument for PAPRs
Ultra’s welding operations are intensive: two eight-hour shifts with almost non-stop welding (and thus, non-stop exposure to welding fumes). PAPRs such as the model selected by Ultra are integrated with auto-darkening welding helmets that fully cover the welder’s face and neck, thus minimizing direct contact with welding fumes. Ultra’s PAPRs (NIOSH Certified 42 CFR Part 84) protect the welder beyond what OSHA regulates as acceptable levels in an eight-hour time period.

“It alleviates breathing harmful vapors and smoke,” says David Setzer, a welder/fabricator at Ultra. “It keeps you cooler, and I go home at the end of the day and it’s not as hard to breathe. It’s the best thing they’ve done.”

Easier breathing and cooling is accomplished by a blower system within the PAPR that features two air speeds and two filters — a pre-filter that takes out a majority of the large particulate and a HEPA filter that eliminates the microscopic, unseen particulate contained in the fumes. The dual-speed blower system feeds in fresh air and allows users to adjust the volume of air to maximize comfort in varied work conditions. The circulating air lowers the temperature inside the welding helmet — a major benefit come summertime in North Carolina.

“It’s very important to Ultra that our employees’ health and safety are protected,” says Susan Barnett, Ultra’s safety director. “Our welders need to feel confident that they are being protected while on the job, and feeling safe helps increase performance. We have had positive feedback from our employees; they are commenting that it’s easier to breathe when performing welding operations, and the constant flow of cool air keeps them comfortable. The PAPR has made a big improvement.”

Comfort aids productivity
Skilled tradesmen (especially welders), who regularly work and navigate hot and dirty conditions, don’t like being weighed down with additional PPE. Today’s lightweight PAPRs, however, are designed to feel as if they aren’t even there. The models chosen by Ultra weigh a total of 5.36 lb., with the blower weighing only 3.25 lb. (about 1 lb. lighter than the industry standard). A lightweight lithium ion battery (compared to heavier nickel-based batteries) further reduces overall weight. Shoulder straps reduce fatigue over long shifts and help distribute the weight evenly, while a low-profile design minimizes any concerns over interference or limited movement.

“It’s just like having a little extra something in your back pocket,” says Setzer. “It doesn’t weigh that much at all.”

“They said it doesn’t weigh as much as some of their wallets,” adds Dawson. “So even the back problems they were having have been relieved during the day so they feel better, do more things and go home feeling good.”

Auto-darkening welding lenses built into the design have also improved productivity because welders spend less time raising and lowering their helmets, a significant time factor when striking as many arcs as these guys do in a day. It also eliminates the potential neck strain associated with the iconic welder’s head-bob — the quick snap of the neck that lowers the hood before each arc is struck. “It actually improves productivity and you can see what you’re doing at all times (without lifting the helmet),” says Setzer.

Keeping the family safe
The old adage about not subjecting a stranger to hardships you wouldn’t be willing to subject yourself or your family to rings true at Ultra: Bob Dawson’s son works on the welding line every day and has reported that the PAPRs have substantially improved his comfort and work environment.

“It’s been almost a 100-percent turnaround from what it was,” says Dawson. “It’s a real plus for everybody.”

With new regulations about to take effect and a new application where hexavalent chromium is a present risk, the use of powered air purifying respirators helps protect Ultra’s welders, makes it easier for them to do their job and shows that the company always has its workers’ best interests in mind.

“Our employees want to go home safe and healthy every day to their families, wives and children,” says Barnett. “So when they come to work, we want to do everything we can to ensure a safe working environment. Putting safety first is Ultra’s goal.”