We often get requests from welders who ask “What’s the best respirator for a welder?” or “What’s the best respirator to use whilst welding?” Unfortunately, there’s no straight answer because we need to consider a number of factors.
Firstly, we need to recognise the dangers of inhaling welding fumes generated by the MIG, TIG and ARC welding processes. The fumes given off whilst welding is a varying mixture of airborne vapours which become very fine solid particles. It is generally accepted that greater caution should be taken when welding stainless steel as fumes are more hazardous than that of mild (carbon) steel fume. Even if we are exposed to them for regular short periods of time, these particulates can be a possible cause of lung disease, asthma, and cancers.
“An Ignorance Amongst the Welding Community”
There is still ignorance when it comes to welders protecting themselves from these carcinogenic fumes. The good news is that awareness is spreading amongst the welding community and there’s an acceptance that protection is needed. However, if you’re reading this, you’ve probably already realised the need for respiratory protection.
What Does The Regulation Say?
Secondly, dust in the workplace provides general principles of protection. In the UK, the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) 2002 Regulations were recently updated (Feb 2019). Where engineering controls alone cannot control exposure, then adequate and suitable RPE should be provided to control risk from any residual fume. Employees have a responsibility to ensure that RPE is effective in protecting the wearer.
Personal air monitoring results can be compared with the relevant set workplace exposure limits (WELs) which are published in the HSE EH40/2005: Workplace Exposure Limits. In-house limits can also be set and used to compare with results for welding, grinding or hot cutting processes.
In conclusion, we now understand the dangers and that it is highly recommended that respiratory protection is worn. So which type of respirator should be used?
The Problems with Face Fit-Testing
Inadequate face fitting leads to the incorrect fitting of the respirator which could put the wearer’s health at risk. Fit testing is required by law for the use of any disposable or tight-fitting facepiece masks. In the UK, it’s required in accordance with the requirements of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH).
The Trouble with Stubble
For welders with any sort of facial hair such as stubble, beards, moustaches or sideburns, then a fit test cannot be conducted. It is not possible to effectively use a gas mask, half-mask or any negative pressure respirator because these tight-fitting facepieces will not achieve a seal around the face with facial hair.
Costing about £2 per mask with no maintenance costs, disposable masks provide a cheap method of respiratory protection. We would only recommend wearing these masks for the short-term as they’ll quickly become dirty and ineffective.
Based on the recommendation of a welder using a minimum of one mask per working day, five days per week over the year, the approximate annual cost for disposable masks would be around £550.
Advantages – Their shape and size can be easily worn underneath a welding helmet.
Disadvantages – Continued use is expensive; low protection factor.
Reusable Respiratory Masks
Reusable respirators include a facepiece mask and a filter. The tight-fitting facepiece is secured to the head using straps. After a relatively inexpensive initial purchase, the mask only needs to be replaced once the mask is damaged or heavily soiled. It’s recommended that gas or particulate filters are only used for 40 hours (roughly 1 week of continuous use) or if they become blocked (whichever happens first).
Whilst respiratory masks are recommended for many applications for respiratory protection, they’re not suitable for welding. Wearing a reusable mask under a welding helmet isn’t practical due to the mask shape and size. It doesn’t comfortably fit under the welding mask.
Based on a welder using their respiratory mask five days per week over the year, the approximate annual cost for reusable masks would be around £280.
Cost of Respiratory Mask – £20
Replacement P3 Dust Filters – £260
Advantages – Cost-effective; mid-level of protection factor;
Disadvantages – Requires a face fit-test; too bulky to wear under a welding helmet
Powered Air Respirators (PAPR)
Although there may be a higher capital expenditure when choosing to implement PAPRs, this expense may be justified in the sense that PAPR respiratory systems have the following advantages:
- > Eliminate the cost and organising of regular face fit-testing
- > Negate the need for shaving – companies cannot enforce religious beards to be shaved off and therefore PAPR is the only option.
- > Increase comfort to the wearer – These systems are powered by battery packs and circulate cool, clean air to the welding helmet to avoid misting
- > More protection – Powered air head-tops provide more than just mouth and nose protection. Some head-tops cover the whole face whilst advanced systems provide full protection to the head, neck, and shoulders
- > Breathing resistance is also lower in PAPR which means that the wearer can breathe more comfortably
- > Potentially integrate multiple types of PPE into one system (hard hat for head, visor for eyes and face, and ear defenders)
- > Low cost of ownership – The PAPR blower should last for at least 3 years
PAPR System – £300 (Lifetime cost of £900 /3 years)
Pre-filters – £140
Replacement P3 Dust Filters – £260
Based on a welder using their PAPR five days per week over the year, the approximate annual cost could be calculated to the tune of around £700.
In conclusion, if you looking to purchase a welding respirator, consider all of the lifetime costs. Whilst disposable masks have a low upfront cost, they require frequent purchase resulting in a fairly expensive annual cost. The reusable respirator is perhaps the most cost-effective means of protection but isn’t suitable for welding.
The PAPR system has the biggest upfront cost but once these costs have been spread over the lifetime of the product, costs become manageable given the overall benefits that the PAPR system provides.
For utmost welding protection, we would recommend the use of the Z-Link Respirator The Z-Link is a powered air respirator with a clip-on welding visor negating the need for a welding mask.
If you are looking for a new respirator but unsure which one to buy, our expert team will be happy to provide you with more information and guidance to ensure you get the most effective and efficient respirator. Contact a1-cbiss