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Fabricator Equips Workforce with Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPRs) for Protection from Hexavalent Chromium [CR(VI)] Exposure

Executive Summary: May 31, 2010 marks the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) deadline for workplaces to have solutions in place to drop exposure levels of Hexavalent Chromium [CR(VI)] below mandated levels. While building engineering and source capture are strong options, personal respirators can also protect workers on the front line. Ultra Machine and Fabrication put one such solution-Miller's Arc ArmorTM Powered Air Purifying Respirator (PAPR)-to work and has witnessed increases in comfort and productivity in addition to the expected safety benefits.  


The PAPR wraps comfortably around the welder's head to block fumes from entering the helmet while a blower with two air speeds keeps the welder cool with fresh air.
Ultra Machine and Fabrication (Shelby, N.C.) is a precision metal fabricator that specializes in armor plate for military and defense vehicles. A new contract secured in early 2010 required welding MIL-A 46100 ballistic steel with a 307 stainless steel filler metal. The anti-corrosive chromium contained in the stainless steel filler metal is transformed into Hexavalent Chromium [CR(VI)] when melted in the welding process.

Hexavalent chromium is a solid, microscopic, carcinogenic particle contained in stainless steel fumes that is thought to cause lung cancer, impair kidney function, and cause damage to the nose, throat, skin and eyes. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has mandated that prolonged exposure to fumes containing Hexavalent Chromium be kept below an 8-hour Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) of 5 µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter) with an Action Level of 2.5 µg/m3. Controls must be in place by May 31, 2010 to ensure these results.

To protect its workers in this new application, Ultra weighed solutions in building design and personal protection equipment (PPE) to learn which option was both practical for operations and served the best interests of its employees. This led to the purchase of 60 Arc ArmorTM Powered Air Purifying Respirators, or PAPRs, from Miller Electric Mfg. Co. Miller's PAPRs have not only met the safety needs, but have increased overall operator productivity and comfort.

Strong Advocates for Employees, Safe Workplace

"We're a family-owned business," says Frank Stewart, owner, Ultra Machine and Fabrication. "We've had great opportunities to invest in our employees. We have a chapel, we have a gym, we've always covered our employees' healthcare and we do everything we can to keep employees healthy and happy while providing a really nice place to work."

Companies have many options (engineering, source capture, PPE) to protect employees and keep exposure to Hexavalent Chromium at accepted levels. Ultra took a look at its entire operation and decided that PAPRs were the most practical solution.

"Based on our building design and workplace configurations, implementing an engineering control was not a practical solution," says Bob Dawson, director of welding, Ultra Machine and Fabrication. The immediacy of the project combined with the quick accessibility of the PAPR units made it the most expedient and practical option. Once units were brought in for testing, the decision to go with a PAPR was made quickly.

"With just a few days of the guys sampling them, we knew this was going to be a buy for us because they felt so much better," says Dawson.

 

The Health Argument for PAPRs

Miller's Powered Air Purifying Respirator (PAPR) features a lightweight blower (3.25 lb.), shoulder straps that reduce fatigue, and evenly distribute weight to provide a comfortable and secure fit.


Ultra's welding operations are intensive: two eight-hour shifts with almost non-stop welding (and thus, non-stop exposure to welding fumes). Miller's PAPRs are integrated with EliteTM auto-darkening welding helmets to create a solution that fully covers the welder's face and neck. Such a design minimizes direct contact with the welding fumes. Miller's PAPRs (NIOSH Certified 42 CFR Part 84, Assigned Protection Factor (APF): 25) protect the welder beyond what OSHA regulates as acceptable levels in an eight-hour time period. Both audible and vibrating alarms notify the welder if air levels coming into the helmet fall below NIOSH specified levels

"It alleviates breathing harmful vapors and smoke," says David Setzer, welder/fabricator, Ultra Machine and Fabrication. "It keeps you cooler, and I go home at the end of the day and it's not as hard to breath. It's the best thing they've done."

Easier breathing and cooling is accomplished by a blower system within the PAPR that features two air speeds and two filters-a pre-filter that takes out a majority of the large particulate and a HEPA filter that eliminates the microscopic, unseen particulate contained in the fumes. The dual-speed blower system feeds fresh air to the welder and keeps him/her cooler, and allows users to adjust the volume of air to maximize comfort in varied work conditions. The circulating air inherently lowers the temperature inside the welding helmet-a major benefit come summertime in North Carolina.

"Its very important to Ultra that our employees health and safety are protected," says Susan Barnett, Safety Director at Ultra Machine and Fabrication. "Our welders need to feel confident that they are being protected while on the job.  Feeling safe when you are at work helps to increase your performance.  We have had positive feedback from our employees after issuing them a PAPR. They are commenting that it's easier to breathe when performing welding operations. The constant flow of cool air keeps them comfortable when welding and this means a lot to them. The PAPR has made a big improvement."

 

Comfort in the Workplace Leads to More Productivity

Skilled tradesmen (especially welders), who regularly work and navigate hot and dirty conditions, aren't as keen to the idea of being weighed down with another tool or piece of PPE. Miller's PAPRs, however, are lightweight and designed to feel as if they aren't even there. The models chosen by Ultra weigh a total of 5.36 lb., with the blower only weighing 3.25 lb. (about 1 lb. lighter than the industry standard). A lightweight lithium ion battery (compared to heavier nickel-based batteries) further reduces overall weight. Shoulder harnesses reduce fatigue over long shifts and help distribute the weight evenly, while a low-profile design minimizes any concerns over interference or limited movement.

"It's just like having a little extra something in your back pocket," says Setzer. "It doesn't weigh that much at all."   

Hexavalent Chromium is a solid but microscopic particle contained in fumes (seen here) generated when using welding metals that contain Chromium.

"It's so lightweight, they said that it doesn't weigh as much as some of their wallets," adds Dawson. "So, even the back problems that they were having, as far as being tired, this has helped relieve these symptoms during the day so that they can feel better and do more things and go home feeling good."

Having auto-darkening welding lenses built into the design has also improved productivity in that welders spend less time raising and lowering their helmets. It doesn't seem like much, but when you're striking as many arcs as these guys do in a day, the time adds up. Not to mention, it eliminates the potential neck strain associated with the iconic welder's head-bob-the quick nod that lowers the hood before each arc is struck.

"It actually improves productivity and you can see what you're doing at all times (without lifting the helmet)," says Setzer.

 

These PAPRs are built with the same auto-darkening helmet lenses Ultra's welders were already familiar with. Ultra has reported an overall increase in productivity and operating comfort since adding the respirators.
Keeping the Family Safe

The old adage about not subjecting a stranger to hardships you wouldn't be willing to subject yourself or your family to rings true at Ultra: Bob Dawson's son works on the welding line every day and has reported that the PAPRs have substantially improved his comfort and work environment.

"It's been almost a 100-percent turnaround from what it was," says Bob Dawson. "It's a real plus for everybody."  

With new regulations about to take effect and a new application where Hexavalent Chromium is a present risk, the use of Powered Air Purifying Respirators help protect Ultra's welders, makes it easier for them to do their job, and shows that the company always has its workers' best interests in mind.

"Our employees have families," says Barnett. "They want to go home safe and healthy every day to their families, wives and children.  So when they come to work, we want to make sure that they will be going home just like they did when they came in that morning.  We want to make sure we are doing everything we can to ensure a safe working environment. Putting safety first is Ultra's goal."

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