Welding requires a lot of gear. While some is optional, other gear is more mandatory. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is designed to protect workers from the hazards of the job. Items like hard hats, safety glasses, gloves and earplugs are required on most job sites and are enforced quite heavily. So why do welders wear masks in addition to their normal gear?
It is widely known that the fumes from welding can cause serious health problems over time. While some welding processes are more toxic than others, the smoke and fumes are very harsh on the body and lungs with all welding processes.
Some welders choose to wear masks/respirators that block harmful particles and smoke from entering the lungs. These aren’t the masks that people are wearing during this pandemic – they are more heavy duty and are designed to block out 99% of particles that workers may encounter.
The Decision To Wear A Mask
While a lot of these respirator masks can fit under a welding hood, they can be very uncomfortable to wear (especially during the summer time).
A lot of pipeline welders refuse to wear a mask due to the inconvenience; pancake styled welding hoods won’t accommodate a mask because there isn’t enough room under the hood. Pancake hoods are designed to block all back light from entering, which helps with welding outside. They are compact and a respirator simply can’t be used with one.
Pipeliner hoods (sugar scoops) and more normal welding hoods can usually accommodate most respirators. If you plan on wearing a respirator, always make sure your hood is compatible before you purchase it.
Not wearing a respirator mask is definitely the hardcore approach. Welders are known to be partiers and “hard livin” type of folks. Many welders just aren’t concerned with adding a respirator to their arsenal. Similar to smoking, the effects of welding may not show for many years. Respiratory issues often don’t arise until a person reaches 60 or 70 years old.
Welding outside is often considered less dangerous than welding in a confined area, and welders may use this as an excuse to not wear a mask. The smoke tends to dissipate outside for obvious reasons, and exposure is lessened in these scenarios.
Although job site supervisors can enforce PPE such as safety glasses and hard hats, they have a harder time enforcing masks/respirators because it is more of a personal decision.
Different Welding Processes
Certain processes like TIG don’t produce as many fumes due to the nature of the arc. There is often very little smoke produced by a TIG weld, especially at low amperages. This tends to mean that the welder is exposed to less harmful toxins.
High amperage stick welding and high voltage flux core MIG tend to produce lots of smoke and sparks. If you watch a welder perform these processes from a distance, you will see the large cloud of smoke continue to build. These processes are very heavy duty, and wearing a respirator can be very beneficial.
Welding on galvanized steel is regarded as the most toxic welding process for humans. The compounds in the coating of galvanized metals can expose the welder to zinc poisoning or “metal fume fever”. High amounts of these fumes can cause a welder to become very sick. If not treated properly, this can lead to serious health problems or even death. If you’re welding galvanized steel, a respirator is a no-brainer.
Wearing a respirator mask is always a good idea. The “tough” guys on the job site may give you a hard time about it, but protecting your health and longevity is a respectable decision. If you plan on welding full time, then it is wise to think about the amount of fumes you will be exposed to over the years. Your future self will definitely thank you for buying that respirator in your early years.
Respirators come in different sizes and styles, so you may have some trial and error before you find one that fits you well. Some welding hoods come with a respirator built into them – these PAPR hoods are very useful, but they are expensive and less common. The easiest route is a separate hood and a separate respirator that fit well together.
You can usually pick up a good respirator for $30 or less. The replacement filters are relatively affordable, and they are easy to install. If you don’t end up liking it, then you can keep it in your toolbox just in case you have to weld galvanized steel at some point.
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