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We know more about welding now than we did decades ago, and the more we know about it, the more we understand the hazards involved in it. Because thousands of cases of injuries and illnesses due to welding are reported each year, it’s important that we educate welders, beginners and professionals alike, regarding the dangers of the job. One of the least talked about hazards is the respiratory assault brought about by fumes (1).
Different types of welding generate different types of fumes and gases, whose effects range from irritation of the exposed tissues to lung cancer. According to the US Department of Health, you’re 40% at more risk of lung cancer than other professionals if you’re a welder.
All the health hazards associated with welding are preventable. The problem is, welders don’t wear sufficient protection either because they’re unaware of the potential hazards or because they neglect safety precautions.
The importance of personal protective equipment cannot be overemphasized when it comes to observing safety precautions in occupational settings. An important, but often neglected, protective device is the respirator.
What is a welding respirator?
A welding respirator is a breathing apparatus that protects you from toxic gases and fumes. A typical respirator filters out impurities in the air and lets you breathe cleaner air. It comes in different designs. You may find half mask, purifying, and supplied air respirators. Each type of respirator is designed for a specific environment and for specific concentrations of fumes in your work area.
Although you may think you can forgo wearing a respirator, especially if your coworkers aren’t wearing theirs, consider the fact that confined spaces with poor ventilation expose you to higher concentrations of welding fumes. But even when ventilation is good, you’re still exposed to significant levels of toxic substances because of your proximity to the source of these substances. Hence, respirators are still recommended.
Welding Fumes and Gases
When talking about welding respirators, it’s important to talk about why you need them. You need them because they filter out harmful substances and particulates from the air.
If you’re doing stick and flux-core, as well as MIG, you’re exposed to fumes. But what are welding fumes, what are they made of, and what makes them dangerous?
Welding fumes are tiny particles of metal oxides in the air. The particles are too small for you to see, but together these particles form a plume. They seem harmless but inhaling them causes short-term and long-term health problems. At first, you may suffer from the so-called metal fume fever, which is like having the flu and feeling dizzy and nauseous at the same time. Metal fumes can cause lung damage in the long run, as well as brain disorders.
What about gases? Welding produces carbon monoxide, ozone, and oxides of nitrogen.
Carbon monoxide is the most dangerous gas generated during welding. Because it’s colorless and odorless, it’s impossible to detect its presence without instruments. When you inhale it, it gets into the lungs and enters the bloodstream, where it combines with the hemoglobin in the red blood cells. When that happens, your red blood cells are no longer able to carry oxygen. This results in carbon monoxide poisoning. Mild carbon monoxide poisoning manifests as headaches and dizziness, but excessive exposure to the toxic gas can lead to loss of consciousness or death.
The welding arc generates ultraviolet light, too. UV light doesn’t just burn your eyes. It also cleaves oxygen molecules into oxygen atoms. Then the free atoms combine with oxygen gas molecules to form ozone. On the other hand, the high temperature of the arc breaks oxygen gas and nitrogen gas molecules into atoms and allows oxygen and nitrogen to form nitric oxide, which then reacts with the available oxygen to form nitrogen dioxide. Ozone, nitric oxide, and nitrogen dioxide are eye, nose, and throat irritants. Exposure to large doses of these gases can cause pulmonary edema.
What we’ve mentioned are just some of the substances that are released or created in a welding operation. Other chemicals released in the air are phosgene, hydrogen chloride, and chlorine gas. Again, they may be irritants at low concentrations, but significant levels create a lethal atmosphere.
Choosing a Welding Respirator
When ventilation systems are not enough to control the buildup of fumes and gases in an occupational setting, respirators or breathing apparatuses become essential. There are different types of welding respirators. Each type has unique benefits and offers a certain level of protection.
1. Particulate filters – These types of filters trap solid particles. The most common example is the N95 filter, which is used in masks and respirators. These filters easily trap fume particulates, so they are quite handy for welders. They don’t remove noxious gases though.
2. Gas and vapor cartridges – You can only get rid of welding gases and vapors through a process called adsorption. This is done using activated carbon. NIOSH approves these cartridges for specific gases and vapors. The label indicates what kind of cartridge you have. Organic vapor cartridges have black labels, while acid gas cartridges have white labels. Organic vapor/acid gas cartridges have yellow labels.
3. PAPRs – Powered air purifying respirators have battery-operated blowers that pull air into the filters or cartridges and then feed filtered air into the breathing tube attached to the helmet. A powered respirator offers more protection and comfort to the user.
4. Supplied air respirators – Filters cannot completely get rid of argon or carbon monoxide, so using any of the above doesn’t offer sufficient protection. In this case, the only option is to wear a supplied air respirator. It draws clean air into the airline without the use of filters, but this respiration system is also inconvenient as it limits your mobility.
The short answer is yes. You might have seen a lot of welders acting like tough girls or guys who can’t be bothered by the smoke and fumes generated by the welding arc. The thing is, if you’re doing welding as a hobby or as a job, you’ll be regularly exposed to toxic fumes and gases, which have immediate and long-term effects on your health. Wearing respirators can be inconvenient, but you want to be on the safe side while working.
Read more about the best welding respirators.