Table of Contents
Everyone is talking about wearing a welding helmet, but you only get a few welders talking about how important it is to wear a welding respirator. Most people don’t realize how dangerous welding fumes and gases are. That’s probably because in most cases the effects of welding fume and gas inhalation aren’t immediate. If you work in a metal fabrication shop and you want to take care of your lungs, wearing a respirator will reduce risks of cumulative respiratory injury (1).
One reason a lot of welders don’t use welding respirators or use the inappropriate ones is because they don’t understand the hazards of fume inhalation or they simply don’t understand how respirators work. Thus, it makes sense to discuss these concerns a bit and answer common questions asked.
First of all, what is a welding respirator?
A respirator is an essential protective equipment for welders. Some respirators are essentially masks that block fumes and dust. Other respirators pump clean air for you to breathe. Essentially, these devices protect you from toxic oxides, metal fumes, vapours, and gases, which are products of arc welding.
Do I need to wear a respirator?
Any type of welding exposes you to contaminants. These contaminants can be in the form of oxide fumes, which are formed when the metals are heated and react with air. As you might have known from chemistry class, metals are more reactive when they’re hot. Molten metals react readily with air, primarily oxygen, which is why shielding gases are important. Shielding gases, on the other hand, mix with your breathing air as well and pose health risks on their own.
You’re probably asking this because you see a lot of guys wearing nothing more than a pair of goggles when welding. Perhaps the fumes provide nothing more than mild annoyance while working. Inhaling welding fumes, however, may lead to lung and kidney cancer. Then again, there’s another related question that deserves to be answered.
Do I need a welding respirator if my welding area is ventilated?
The short answer is yes. Ventilation should be part of your method to improve air quality in your workspace. In many cases, good ventilation helps improve air quality and allow for a breathable air space while you’re working. However, a respirator, even just an N95 welding mask, is enough for welding situations and is a good adjunct to ventilation as a means to protect welders like you. These respirators are generally inexpensive, so there’s no reason for you to not invest in one.
What’s the purpose of a full-mask respirator?
The half-mask respirator is the most commonly used respirator, not just by welders, because it blocks most of the contaminants we’re worried about. The N95 or R95 mask respirator can block particulates and is sufficient for everyday welding situations. But in situations where welding produces eye irritants, wearing a full-mask respirator is a necessity. A full-mask respirator provides more efficiency in blocking fumes and gases because there are less potential entry points along the otherwise loose-fitting edges of half mask respirators.
Are mask respirators enough?
Half-mask or full-mask respirators may include both a filter and a cartridge. The filter blocks solid particulates in the air. Some types, those using R or P filters, can filter oil particles. The activated carbon in the cartridge gets rid of vapors and some gases. But in some cases, these are not enough. It may seem as though that supplied air respirators are an overkill in welding, but they are crucial in many situations. In fact, a supplied air respirator provides the best protection, considering many types of gases cannot be adequately filtered by N, R, or P filters or even adsorbed by cartridges.
So what type of respirator should I invest in?
The first thing you need to do before buying a respirator is knowing the types of respirators used for welding and what each type does. You also have to assess the type of welding you usually do to understand the common hazards you’re exposed to. A half mask is sufficient in many cases, but if you notice eye irritation, try a full-mask respirator or maybe adjust the shade of your welding helmet (and that’s a different topic altogether).
Welding for long hours, especially with a mask on, can be uncomfortable, and that’s why some welders use a powered air purifying respirator. Then again, as mentioned earlier, none of these provide protection from every assaulting contaminant produced during welding. So a supplied air respirator, no matter how limiting it is to one’s mobility, has its place in occupational safety.
How long can you keep a welding respirator on?
Good respirators can go on for 8-12 continuous hours of operation. The average welder, however, doesn’t work that long. In environments where there’s so much dust and fume accumulation, you may need to replace filters and cartridges often — or simply put on a supplied air respirator. On the other hand, powered air purifying respirators work until the batteries are dead and need to be recharged or replaced.
The Bottom Line
There’s no argument that welding is hazardous in many ways. People like to downplay the hazards, and you’ll find guys who ridicule the thought of wearing too much protection. It’s tempting to look tough and just keep working. But erring on the side of caution allows you to keep your job and reduce the risk of a huge hospital bill at some point in the future.
If you’re doing welding work for a company, then keep in mind that providing PPE, including welding respirators is your employer’s responsibility, not yours. But if you don’t follow safety protocols, that’s on you.
Recommended Reading – Best Welding Respirators