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One of the most important components of an overall welding protective equipment is the respirator. Most respirators worn by welders cover the nose and mouth, but some respirators are designed to cover the whole face. Regardless of its design, the main job of a welding respirator is to protect you from welding fumes, smoke, dust, and gases (1).
How Welding Respirators Work
Because occupational hazards vary from job to job, respirators may be designed for specific types of workers. This is mainly why you can find several types of respirators on the market. But even welding respirators vary in design and function.
Each type has a distinct function. One type of respirator may filter out fumes, while another one is built to get rid of poisonous gases. Another type of respirator may be designed to bring an external source of air into your breathing apparatus. Because the way a respirator works depends on its type, it’s worth discussing these types.
Half Mask Respirator
This tight-fitting respirator is essentially designed to provide coverage of the lower half of your face — from your nose down to your chin. For a half-mask respirator to work properly, it should fit snugly. It protects you from fumes and vapours and offers limited protection from toxic gases.
A half mask respirator has a particulate filter, which traps solid particulates. Welding fumes mainly consist of solids, and that’s why an N95 filter is recommended for most welders, since it easily filters fumes. N95 class filters don’t have oil mist resistance, but oil mist is seldom a problem in welding. If oil mist is present, R95 or P95 respirators will be used. On the other hand, an N100 filter may be required for situations wherein lead and cadmium fumes are present.
An example is the LPR-100 Half Mask Respirator, which is designed to sit snugly underneath any welding helmet. It filters out 99.97% of airborne particulates and aerosols. P100 filters are designed to get rid of oil-based and non-oil-based particulates, as well as metal fumes and dust.
Another example is the 3M 7502/37082 Half Facepiece, a reusable respirator from a popular brand. It comes with an advanced silicone material for more comfort. It matters that your mask respirator allows you to breathe easily. Another important feature of this mask respirator is its cool flow valve, which prevents moisture and heat buildup.
Full Mask Respirator
Full mask or full face respirator covers your entire face. That sounds a bit too much until you realize welding fumes and gases irritate the eyes as well. Because these respirators have cartridges, they provide more protection than welding masks equipped only with particulate filters.
Cartridges contain activated carbon, which remove gases and vapours through a process called adsorption (often confused with absorption). Adsorption is when molecules adhere to surfaces, and activated carbon is used because its high surface area means it can get rid of a great deal of vapours and odours.
While particulate filters get clogged over time, gas and vapour cartridges become saturated at some point. Since saturated cartridges allow contaminants to pass through, they should be replaced. Full mask respirators use NIOSH-approved filters and cartridges, which you can replace at some point.
A good example is the PD-100 Full Face Organic Vapor Welding Respirator, which is an excellent choice if you work in a busy workshop with lots of sparks flying around. It’s lightweight. It has an ergonomic design to provide comfort. It doesn’t feel stuffy. More importantly, it has the so-called “never fog” circulation technology, which means breathing doesn’t lead to misty shields.
Powered Air Purifying Respirator
A powered respirator uses a battery to turn on a blower that pulls air through the filters and cartridges. Flowing air into the headpiece creates internal pressure that prevents outside contaminants from leaking into your helmet. Hence, this type of respirator provides more protection and much better air quality than welding masks. In addition, the internal airflow helps keep your face cool while you’re working. Most PAPRs are easy to fit and are more comfortable than mask respirators.
The PAPR with Hard hat & Titanium 9400 Helmet is notable for providing 99.97% particulate filtration. The HEPA filter traps chromium, zinc, manganese, aluminum, iron, copper, cadmium, and lead fumes. That means it’s useful for most welding situations. Its blower automatically adjusts its fan speed for constant airflow. The blower is operated by a lithium ion battery that delivers up to 8 hours of performance.
Supplied Air Respirator
The previously mentioned respirators do not effectively filter gases like argon and carbon monoxide. In cases when there’s a great risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, wearing a supplied air respirator is in order. This type of respirator requires a compressor that is set up somewhere outside the welding area. Unlike all the other respirators, a supplied air respirator pumps clean air into the airline. Although they limit mobility and create inconvenience while working, you have no other option when the risks are significant.
Supplied air respirators cool the incoming air to, at least, make you a bit more comfortable. The SAR with T94i-R Helmet cools incoming air to as low as 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Imagine that cool air freshening you up and relieving heat stress at work. Moreover, the Dualtec manifold system involves 6-point airflow distribution that really enhances the cooling effect.
The Bottom Line
When ventilation isn’t enough to provide you safe and breathable air, respirators come to the rescue. The market teems with respirators of all kinds and prices. You can find reusable and disposable respirators. Keep in mind that not all respirators are suitable for you.
The right unit depends on the type of welding you’re doing, which in turn determines the types of metals you’re working on and the fumes and shielding gases you’re likely to be exposed to. Ideally, a welding respirator should be fitted for you so that you get the most benefit from it.