This article will look at heat stress as it relates to welding applications and discuss technologies available to help keep welders cool under the hood and all of that protective gear.
With the summer months just around the corner and global temperatures continuing to rise, heat stress should be on the top of all employers’ minds.
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 2011, 23 people died in the construction and manufacturing industries due to exposure to temperature extremes. Many more suffered lost time away from work due to heat-related “injuries” — heat stroke, heat syncope, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, fainting, heat rash and more. As OSHA has not yet implemented a heat stress standard, the effort to protect workers falls squarely on the shoulders of employers and the workers themselves.
OSHA identifies two primary sources for heat stress in the workplace: the environmental conditions in which people work and the internal heat generated by physical labor. In welding, there is a third, man-made source: the welding arc itself and the heat it puts into the steel that is being welded. This is additionally compounded by factors such as material preheating, which adds even more heat into the environment, and the avoidance of using fans or other airflow solutions that can blow away critical shielding gas.
In this article we’ll look specifically at heat stress as it relates to welding applications and discuss technologies available to help keep welders cool under the hood and all of that protective gear. While there might not be anything you can do about the heat of the environment or the welding process, there are PPE solutions designed specifically to keep welders cool.
Assess the risk —indoors and outdoors
Heat stress is most often first related to working outdoors, and that is a real risk for welders in the construction industry.
OSHA has put together a heat index measurement system that recommends proactive measures based on conditions. These measures can range from drinking adequate water (low risk) to rescheduling all non-essential outdoor work for the day to nighttime hours (high risk).
OSHA has even come out with a Smartphone app designed to help workers calculate the heat index of their jobsite and determine their current risk. The app suggests protective measures, instructs on how to identify heat stress symptoms in others and details actions to take should someone become ill.
Welders who work indoors in manufacturing facilities and fabrication shops face similar risks and don’t have the benefit of a cool breeze that may come with working outdoors. Adding plant-wide HVAC systems and dehumidifiers is not always practical.
Heat stress hinders productivity
In addition to the obvious comfort and health factors, a growing body of research indicates that heat stress hinders the ability to concentrate and perform tasks that require even a moderate level of skill. As a result, employees work at a slower pace and with less accuracy.
Because welding is often used in applications where quality is critical, the significance of each error is magnified. Mistakes that go undetected can not only damage the company’s reputation for reliability and quality, but can be a liability and cause danger if a critical weld is made with less accuracy. Even those that are caught can be costly to correct, and neither outcome is ideal.
In addition to working at a slower pace, there are additional productivity concerns with working in hot environments. Welders are often encouraged to take as many breaks as needed in hot environments to ensure they keep hydrated and comfortable — a best practice, but a drain on productivity. Should a welder suffer from a heat-related illness, employers are then faced with lost work days, workers’ compensation and reduced product output — all having a negative effect on the bottom line.
The welding industry is further at risk because of the age of its workforce. The average age of a welder continues to sit at about 54-55. Older workers are considerably more susceptible to heat stress. The question becomes: how do you proactively help that welder keep cool, even in an environment with high temperatures?
Gearing up to cool down
There are many different solutions an employer can offer to help keep their welding operators as cool and comfortable as possible. These include but are not limited to lighter weight protective clothing, cooling headbands and complete body cooling systems.
One product designed to reduce heat stress is a directional air fan integrated into the welding helmet as part of its headgear. This product is powered by rechargeable or replaceable batteries and directs air flow both down over the user’s face and upward across the top of the head. This system can cool the area under the welding helmet by up to 8 degrees Fahrenheit. The cooler ambient air and air flowing over the head and face combine to reduce capillary blood temperature and encourage more rapid sweat evaporation for maximum cooling.
A belt-mounted cooling fan with a hose attachment that connects to the welding helmet and directs air over the welder’s face and head is also available. These units can reduce the temperature under the helmet by up to 17 degrees Fahrenheit.
Factors to consider when shopping for helmet- or belt-mounted cooling systems include product weight and size, cost, battery life, ease of installation, fan adjustability, and overall durability and construction.
Another hurdle welders have to overcome relates to PPE. Welders don’t have the luxury of removing layers as temperatures rise. Gloves, jackets, sleeves and helmets are most often required while performing their job. For years, welders have wrestled with balancing protection and comfort — the challenge being: how do you keep cool without removing PPE?
Recent advances in materials have allowed manufacturers to eliminate weight and improve breathability in welding protective products. This includes a new line of materials that provide increased flame-resistant properties over the standard cotton jacket. For heat stress concerns this is a great alternative to leather because it is much more lightweight and breathable. This ultimately ensures optimal protection in a lighter product, further reducing fatigue and cooling the welder. This material is offered as a full jacket, cape sleeves (allowing to keep the back completely open and airy), and sleeves. Leather is still going to provide the best protection against sparks and spatter, but this material is the next best alternative.
All of these solutions will help in the quest to make welders more comfortable in hot environments, but proper hydration and rest breaks are always encouraged as the primary defense against heat stress. Combining these activities with smart PPE selection should help welders keep cool, even doing hot work.