Protecting the Head: Welding Personal Protective Equipment and Considerations for Health, Safety and Comfort
December 14, 2011
The head: the body's command center and the gateway to respiratory health. No other part of the human body affects how we go about doing our job — or how we feel about it — more than the head. For that reason, equipment manufacturers have gone to extra lengths to design products that not only keep welders safe, but also enhance comfort and make it easier to do their jobs. In this article we'll look at personal protective equipment (PPE), specifically head protection, that is making welding safer and more comfortable every day.
As a side note, all technologies discussed in this article should meet or exceed requirements put forth by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the American Welding Society (AWS), the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), with the exception of the heat stress relief products which are designed more for a welder’s comfort and are not regulated.
Despite regulations, unfortunately it can be common to find welders not wearing safety glasses underneath their welding hood. Many believe them to be redundant to the welding helmet or too cumbersome to wear in conjunction with a helmet. While modern welding helmets do a decent job of preventing hazards from reaching the eyes, there is still no substitute for primary eye protection such as a pair of safety glasses.
This is especially critical as welders spend significant portions of their day with the hood up when between welds, preparing welds, and moving completed parts out and new parts in. Rather than putting on a pair of safety glasses every time a welder flips up the helmet, the only way to ensure consistent protection at all times is to wear safety glasses throughout the day.
Many traditional safety glasses are uncomfortable, fit poorly and tend to slide around your face as you work. Big, bulky glasses tend to also let debris in even if being worn properly by the welder. Welders can now find reasonably priced options that offer form-fitting orbital eye coverage, rubber ear pads and soft foam eye guards that keep out dust and perspiration. These features ensure that the glasses grip tightly to the face, keep out airborne hazards, and provide comfort and protection throughout the day. Clear glasses are fine for welding as the helmet will provide protection from the arc, but glasses up to shade level five should be kept available for plasma and oxy-fuel cutting.
Heat Stress Relief
A new category of welding PPE, addressed by Miller’s CoolBand™ and CoolBelt™ products, is heat stress relief. Welders in heavy-duty, intensive welding applications were looking for ways to reduce temperatures under the hood and were going to the extent of buying complete respiratory systems to provide air circulation inside the welding helmet even if their application did not present any respiratory health hazards. New products have been designed to reduce temperatures under the hood without going to the expense of buying a complete respiratory system.
Options include a headgear cooling system featuring both downward and upward air vents that provide a constant flow of air over the welder’s face and lower the temperature in the hood by as much as eight degrees Fahrenheit. A belt-mounted product is also available. The belt-mounted system features a hose that pumps air up in to the welder’s helmet, offers multiple air speeds and directional air controls, and lowers the temperature in the welder’s helmet by as much as 17 degrees Fahrenheit.
In addition to lowering temperatures, these heat stress relief systems solve another major pain point: fogging of safety glasses and the inside of the helmet lens in hot conditions. By circulating air and reducing the welder’s perspiration, moisture is removed from the helmet and lens fogging is reduced. This improves comfort and productivity because welders spend less time wiping glasses and lenses, and improves safety because it reduces the hassle of safety glasses fogging up, which was a deterrent to wearing safety glasses in the past.
Auto-Darkening Welding Helmets
The greatest recent advancement in auto-darkening helmet technology involves the electromagnetic detection of the weld. Historically, welding helmets would only use optical sensors that picked up the light of the weld. By adding magnetic sensors that pick up on the magnetic field of the arc, helmets now respond more consistently than ever to further protect a welder’s sight. It especially improves performance when welding outside on sunny days. The lens won’t darken until an arc is struck, regardless of sunlight. This substantially improves detection when welding outside and eliminates these issues common with older welding helmets.
Helmet manufacturers have also been able to add greater functionality to helmets without increasing their weight. Helmets today don’t weigh any more than the old passive helmets used years ago, even with advancements such as larger liquid crystal display (LCD) panels and customizable settings such as adjustable sensitivity, various shade options and delay controls. Premium helmets should feature the ability to respond within 1/20,000th of a second for optimal protection, especially in applications involving heavy tacking where a welder strikes a greater amount of arcs throughout the day. Larger LCD panels improve the welder’s view to the work piece, peripheral vision, and overall awareness of the surroundings.
For heavy industrial applications where welders are consistently welding at high amperages (300+ amps) for long periods of their workday, a helmet with a reflective color, such as silver, should be considered. This will help reflect radiant heat and keep the welder cooler throughout the day.
Helmet manufacturers have made helmets more comfortable by adding padding and improved balance to the design. Balance is one of the most important features to take notice of when trying on a helmet. A helmet with proper balance will reduce fatigue on the neck throughout the day and will make the helmet feel lighter than it actually is.
Conventional wisdom may say that a smaller helmet will be more comfortable throughout the day because of reduced weight, but these designs pose a problem: they leave the neck unprotected and typically don’t feel much lighter than a properly balanced larger helmet. These smaller helmets often require a bib to be attached to properly protect the skin from spatter and UV light emitted by the arc. Look for helmets with a shell that extends down to the neck to give complete coverage. If you do use a smaller helmet, ensure that you weld with your welding jacket fully zipped up to protect your neck.
In shops where overhead cranes are used, or there is a risk of falling objects, a hardhat is required and should be worn at all times. Most helmet manufacturers make an easy-to-install hardhat adapter that allows you to use your existing helmet with a hardhat. If you perform a lot of grinding work, also look for new models that feature an ANSI-approved clear grinding shield. This allows welders to keep their helmets down, flip up the visor with the auto-darkening lens, and have a clear 180-degree view of the work piece and the surrounding areas.
Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPR)
The most recent hexavalent chromium standard has driven many manufacturers and fabricators who handle stainless steel to provide powered air purifying respirators (PAPR) as a potential solution to their employees. However, more companies are looking at their safety initiatives and are outfitting their workforce with respiratory protection ahead of potential regulations. More than a way to keep safety numbers in check, these companies see this strategy as a way of staying in front of their insurance companies and lessening long-term liability.
The main reason to outfit welders with PAPR units is to protect them from harmful particulate created by the use of certain base metals and fillers. In addition to stainless and hexavalent chromium, companies should be monitoring particulate levels in applications involving manganese, galvanized steels and exotic alloys. Certain cleaners and degreasers also may emit harmful fumes/particulate.
PAPRs have become less intrusive in recent years, with battery weight being substantially reduced and designs introduced that evenly distribute the added weight across the welder’s back and shoulders. A PAPR uses a blower (often positioned on a welder’s back along the waist) to pass contaminated air through a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter to remove contaminants and supply purified air in a sealed welding helmet. This removes at least 99.97 percent of airborne particles 0.3 micrometers in diameter.
In addition to removing contaminants, the flow of air cools the welder’s face similar to heat stress relief products, making the environment more comfortable. The fact that the PAPR seals the helmet with a cloth hood also keeps out contaminants from entering the helmet’s environment. This helps keep the welder’s face clean and comfortable. Some companies have even deployed these systems as another method of eye protection. When matched with a helmet with an integrated clear grinding shield, such as Miller’s PAPR with Titanium 9400i™ auto-darkening welding helmet, a system is created that completely seals the environment and never needs to be flipped up, even when grinding. Completely eliminating exposure is one of the best ways to ensure safety.
While items like beanies and welding caps are not required in all facilities, these products do a nice job of keeping workplace dust out of the welder’s hair and scalp. Another often-overlooked piece of safety apparel is earplugs. Earplugs not only protect hearing, but they keep airborne contaminants—even spatter in some applications—from entering the ear canal.
Job One: Safety
While some of these more advanced technologies may seem excessive in certain welding applications, each carries out an important task in protecting the welder’s health, senses and comfort — all of which start with the head. In many cases, the cost of a system like the PAPR is substantially less than the cost of a welding-related injury or illness and the associated loss in productivity. Prevention is the best medicine, and in this case, that means outfitting your staff with the tools to make sure they not only return to do their job each day, but that they feel good about doing it.