Air Quality and Productivity
How Much is Air Quality Costing Your Welding Operation?
Overexposure to welding fumes is bad for your employees’ health. Is poor air quality also bad for your bottom line? Air quality issues may be costing your welding facility more than you think.
- Direct effects include reduced concentration levels, higher error rates and increased health-related absenteeism for your current workers.
- Indirect effects include reduced productivity and increased hiring and training costs for your entire operation due to the effects of indoor air quality on employee recruitment and retention.
Let’s take a closer look at the science of air quality and productivity and the measureable effects that air quality has on welding facilities.
The Effects of Welding Fumes on Worker Health and Productivity
Welding fumes are a complex mixture of silicates, fluorides and various metallic oxides, depending on the metal being welded. When a metal is heated above its boiling point, welding fumes are formed as vapors condense into tiny particles called solid particulates.
Welding fumes have both immediate and long-term impacts on worker health. The specific effects will depend on the type of metal being welded as well as any coatings on the metal. For example:
- Nickel, Copper, Vanadium and Molybdenum, found in many metal alloys, can have immediate acute effects such as shortness of breath and respiratory irritation; eye, nose or throat irritation; or nausea. Acute affects will have an immediate impact on worker productivity, as workers cannot perform well when they are not feeling well or if their vision is negatively impacted by eye irritation. Affected workers are also more likely to go home early and miss subsequent workdays.
- Overexposure to these elements or to other elements like Zinc, Manganese, or Beryllium can cause a serious condition called “Metal Fume Fever,” or welding sickness. Metal Fume Fever causes non-specific, flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, nausea, headache, muscle or joint pain, shortness of breath and fatigue. With continued overexposure, the illness can progress to shock or convulsions, requiring immediate medical attention. Even milder cases will require two to three days for workers to get over flu-like symptoms and up to three weeks for full recovery.
- Long-term effects of overexposure to welding fumes include cancer, kidney damage, emphysema and chronic nervous system effects, potentially leading to early disability or death.
Companies clearly have an ethical responsibility to ensure that workers in welding environments are protected from these effects. But air quality control makes good sense financially, as well. Even if air quality is not bad enough to lead to the more dangerous effects, it can have a real impact on both day-to-day productivity and long-term hiring and retention.
Measuring the Costs of Poor Air Quality
Studies have shown that indoor air quality has real and measureable impact on productivity. Improving air quality has been linked to reduced error rates, increased output and a significant reduction in absenteeism.
Here’s what the science says:
- A U.S. study measured a 4.2% improvement in worker productivity when indoor air pollution levels were reduced by 10 ppb.
- Indoor air quality has been shown to have significant impacts on both worker productivity and product quality in factory environments.
- Poor IAQ causes six additional lost workdays per year for every ten employees.
The EPA estimates that the costs associated with healthcare expenses and lost productivity due to indoor air quality issues in the workplace could be in the tens of billions of dollars each year. Similarly, OSHA has estimated that worker absences and reduced efficiency resulting from poor air quality cost U.S. companies $15 billion annually. And this doesn’t include the rising cost of lawsuits and legal liability associated with air quality issues that impact worker health.
Recruiting and Retaining More Productive Workers
In addition to the immediate effects on worker productivity, employers need to look at the effects that air quality has on recruiting and retaining quality employees.
A high turnover rate is a productivity killer for a welding operation. Welding is a highly skilled occupation, and even highly qualified workers will be less productive in their first weeks or months in a new welding shop as they learn the ropes. High turnover costs employers in the welding industry in several ways:
- lost productivity due to reduced staffing while looking for replacement welders;
- hiring and training costs associated with finding and onboarding new employees; and
- reduced productivity for new employees as they learn the specific requirements and processes of their new jobs.
Of course, employers also have to be able to recruit good workers in the first place. According to the American Welding Society, by 2020 we can expect a shortage of 290,000 skilled professionals in welding and related occupations (which includes welding teachers, inspectors and engineers). The average age of welders in the U.S. is 55, and employers are bracing for a wave of retirements in the coming decade. While interest in welding training is up, years of low levels of recruitment and training in the industry will mean that skilled, experienced workers will have their pick of jobs.
Increasingly, work environment—including air quality—is playing a large role in job decisions for younger workers. Workers are more educated about the potential impact of welding fumes on their health, and they don’t want to take chances. They also want to work in environments that are pleasant and comfortable.
Skilled welders with multiple job opportunities are voting with their feet. When comparing a job offer from a facility that appears dirty, smells bad and has visible fumes, versus an offer from a company with clean facilities and fresh-smelling air, many welders will select the latter—sometimes even if the pay is less.
Air quality and working environment have a direct effect on employee retention as well. Workers who feel like their health is in jeopardy, or who simply find their work environment unpleasant, are more likely to jump at the first opportunity.
All of this has a large impact on overall productivity. Highly skilled welders are simply more productive than their less experienced or well-trained counterparts. Companies who are able to attract and retain these skilled, experienced workers will see overall productivity rates rise.
For these reason, savvy companies are making air quality and a pleasant working environment part of their recruitment and retention strategy. Good ventilation systems and other indoor air quality measures can help employers make sure their shop stands out to new recruits and keeps long-time workers happy.
The Economic Payoff of Improving Air Quality
Improving air quality is an investment that will pay off in real economic terms. Some studies have shown that investments in air quality improvement can pay off in as little as two years in terms of improved productivity, reduced absenteeism and higher retention rates.
Improving air quality for welding operations provides economic returns in several ways:
- Improved direct daily productivity from workers
- Reduced error rates
- Reduced absenteeism
- Increased employee retention
- Reduced hiring and training costs
- Recruitment of more skilled and productive employees
In addition to these benefits, improving air quality and reducing employees’ exposure to dangerous welding fumes can reduce healthcare costs and significantly lower the risk of potential health-related lawsuits from employees.
When you add it all up, improving indoor air quality in welding facilities makes good economic sense.
Air Quality Solutions for Higher Worker Productivity
In order to improve air quality and productivity in welding operations, welding facilities need to look at two aspects of air quality: ambient air quality for the facility as a whole and localized air quality near operating welding equipment.
RoboVent has spent decades improving and perfecting ventilation and fume capture systems for welding operations. There are two basic methods of weld fume removal:
- Source-capture ventilation systems, including ducted cross-flow hoods and portable fume-capture systems, capture welding fumes right at their source and return filtered air back to the plant. These systems remove welding smoke and fumes directly from the operator’s breathing zone.
- Ambient ventilation systems, such as RoboVent’s Vortex and Push-Pull Systems, are total-plant solutions that clean the air for the entire facility. They can be used in conjunction with source-capture methods, or in situations where facility design or multiple welding locations makes source capture impractical or unfeasible.
Plant managers may want to consider multiple ventilation methods depending on their specific welding applications, plant design and air quality concerns. RoboVent’s welding ventilation system experts can help welding plant managers evaluate their current air quality risk profile and recommend solutions that will help them get the best value and results for their investment.
An investment in air quality is an investment in worker health, safety, productivity and satisfaction. It’s a simple fix that will pay off in years to come through higher worker productivity, reduced absenteeism and better retention and recruitment.