In relation to the hierarchy of controls, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is often referred to as the last resort. 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: 1) Welding Helmets with integrated respiratory protection and 2) Half mask respirators.
Welding Helmets with Integrated Respiratory Protection
‘Welding helmets with integrated powered air purifying respirators (PAPR) are the most widely used form of respiratory protection amongst welders in Australia and New Zealand’1 and are mandatory within many businesses.
They have a Required Minimum Protection Factor (RMPF) of 50, meaning that they supply breathing air a minimum 50 times cleaner than the welder would otherwise be breathing unprotected and can also protect the welders’ 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 have 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 over 1,500 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. Worker compensation claims decreased markedly while employee morale increased substantially’2.
PAPR’s 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. Supplied air respirators provide the welder with a RMPF of 100+. This means that these systems deliver air to the welder that is at least 100 times cleaner than the air in the surrounding environment.
Half mask respirators
Disposable or reusable half mask respirators can be worn underneath a welding helmet to provide a 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, PAPR’s provide 5 times the respiratory protection (RMPF = 50) and do not require fit testing or a complete clean shaven condition.
1. 2020 Welding Fume and Respiratory Protection Survey, AWS
2. Case study can be provided upon request
* 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.