The Business of Weld Fume: Ways to Create a Safer Work Environment
The goal of any company, beyond its productivity and profitability, is to help maintain a safe and comfortable work environment for its employees. Making the decision to implement process changes and technologies that reduce weld fume can lead to greater productivity, better weld quality and a better bottom line. The question becomes a matter of what type of filler metal, welding process and fume extraction system are best for the job. This article highlights business considerations and options for managing weld fume and the related benefits.
The issue of weld fume regulation continues to garner attention throughout Canada — and rightly so. The goal of any company, beyond its productivity and profitability, is to help maintain a safe and comfortable work environment for its employees. It is both a legal and a moral responsibility.
Increasingly strict fume regulations and recommendations, such as those set forth by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) provide a baseline for controlling air contaminants such as manganese. And while each province may have its own requirements — many Canadian companies follow ACGIH recommendations — the business ramifications of implementing (or not implementing) fume abatement solutions are still the same.
Safety and beyond
Every company has its reason for seeking out options for weld fume management. Of course, safety is typically the No. 1 motivation. After all, maintaining a safe work environment helps ensure the long-term health of employees, as well as their comfort throughout the workday.
There are, however, other business considerations for managing weld fume. For example, fume abatement solutions can reduce overhead and operating expenses. Maintaining compliance with allowable fume levels minimizes the opportunity for fines from regulatory bodies and it can minimize costs for worker compensation claims associated with employee injuries. Companies that integrate fume abatement solutions may also be in a better position to negotiate favorable liability and health insurance rates with their insurers.
In many cases, fume extraction systems can help prolong the life of electronic equipment and power sources by removing particulates from the air and preventing equipment breakdowns. In doing so, they minimize costly downtime for maintenance and repairs.
Compliance with weld fume regulations can also help attract a larger pool of skilled laborers. Trends show that new welding operators entering the industry tend to be more health conscious than those of past generations. Offering a clean, healthy work environment helps make companies more appealing to this group of potential employees, while also giving the companies a competitive advantage in retaining and recruiting skilled welding operators.
Lastly, proper weld fume control can help improve productivity and quality. By providing welding operators with greater visibility, fume abatement solutions make it easier for welding operators to see the weld pool, effectively ensuring greater control over quality. Minimizing fume also reduces the amount of time that welding operators have to pause during the welding process to clean their welding helmets free of fume particulates. They can spend more time welding.
Options for controlling weld fume
Companies can control weld fume in a number of ways. A welding process change is one way. When possible, a company may choose to change from Stick welding to a solid wire or metal-cored wire process as a means to lower fume levels. Or companies may choose to operate with a low fume or low manganese filler metal. Today, there are filler metals available that offer exceptionally low manganese levels, for example. These wires can help meet the threshold limit value (TLV) of .02 milligrams per cubic meter set forth by the ACGIH.
Powered air purifying respirators (PAPRs) are another option to protect employees from weld fume. In addition to removing contaminants, the flow of air in the PAPR cools the faces of welding operators, helping to make them more comfortable.
Fume extraction systems that offer source capture, however, are among the best options to control weld fumes. Source capture removes contaminated air at the source before it reaches the welding operator’s breathing zone. The specific type that companies employ, however, will vary since every welding operation is different. An industrial hygienist can provide good recommendations based on fume levels, facility footprints, welding processes and budgets. Options include:
- Portable/mobile floor models: Welding operators can move both of these types of fume extraction systems around the weld cell and the facility. Portable models can be coupled with a fume extraction gun that captures fume directly at the source via a fume chamber or by way of attachments like a flexible funnel nozzle. These systems are good for applications in small spaces or hard-to-reach areas. They also work well for maintenance and repair operations or contract jobs where welding doesn’t occur on a regular basis.
Mobile floor models feature an adjustable extraction arm that the welding operator can move toward the weld pool to remove the fume from up to 18 inches away. These models work well in maintenance/repair operations, fabrication shops and manufacturing facilities where there are single-arc applications.
- Stationary/wall-mounted models: Like portable or mobile floor models, stationary or wall-mounted fume extraction systems feature an extraction arm that is adjustable, making it simple for welding operators to shorten the distance to the arc and efficiently remove the weld fume from the area. These systems are designed for dedicated welding cells in fabrication shops, manufacturing and training centers where weld areas are near the filtration system and mobility is not required. Wall-mounted versions can be expanded to two arms, taking the footprint off the shop floor and allowing for more room in the weld cell to expand welding operations.
- Fume extraction guns: These guns are designed for FCAW or GMAW applications and connect with a portable fume extraction system. Fume extraction guns are considered to be a high-vacuum/low-volume fume extraction system. They have higher suction and employ small diameter hose or ducting with lower overall air volume, meaning the source capture distance is much closer to the weld, usually less than 3 inches away. Smaller hoses and ducting in these guns also helps the welding operators get into restricted spaces and removes the fume much closer to the weld itself.
- Centralized industrial (multi-arc) systems: For companies with multiple arcs or with robotic welding cells, an engineered centralized fume extraction system is a good choice. These systems offer fume capture capabilities ranging from 2,000 to 60,000 cubic feet per minute (cfm) and can be customized for a wide variety of welding environments and applications. Accessories and examples to extract weld fume are: mechanical extraction arms, backdraft hoods and tables and/or overhead collection hoods that cover the welding area.
One obstacle to source capture — particularly those utilizing an extraction arm — is that it can be difficult to position the arm over large weldments or other obstructions within the weld cell. The welding operator can also accrue a significant amount of downtime to pause during welding and reposition the fume extraction arm to collect the fume. New technologies are addressing this issue. Namely, fume extraction systems are now available that create a negative pressure zone that increases the distance they can capture fume — up to 5 feet away and an area up to 4 feet wide. These new fume extraction systems are especially well-suited for welding applications where there are long continuous welds; they help eliminate or minimize interaction with the arm, while also employing source capture throughout the welding process.
Making the fume abatement decision
Making the decision to implement process changes and technologies that reduce weld fume can be simple with the right assistance. It’s the responsible choice and one that can lead to greater productivity, better weld quality and a better bottom line. The question becomes simply a matter of what type of filler metal, welding process and fume extraction system are best for the job. To help make the decision, consult with a trusted welding distributor, industrial hygienist or fume extraction system supplier for options.