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.
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."