OSHA Regulations and Your Welding Ventilation Systems

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Running a manufacturing plant can be difficult. With so many things vying for your attention, air quality can fall lower and lower on the list of priorities. And you might think that OSHA is just getting in the way with their regulations that push air quality back up on your list, but the truth is that OSHA weld fume regulations could be the best thing for your business.

Welding fumes can cause a host of problems in your employees, plant operations and overall efficiency. Consider that poor indoor air quality decreases productivity by 9% or more. With that as a base number, the loss of good workers who move to greener pastures, and the number of sick days taken by those who stay, the facility with insufficient welding ventilation systems doesn’t stand a chance.

By installing welding ventilations systems that adequately clear weld fume pollutants from the air, facilities not only comply with OSHA, eliminate hefty fines and have a cleaner workplace, but their welders are happier and healthier as a result. This ensures that you retain the best talent and get the most efficient work out of them.

The biggest road blocks to installing a good weld fume exhaust control system and improving the air quality for welding facilities are:

  • Misunderstanding of the facility’s needs
  • Capital costs for purchase and installation
  • Appropriate application of the system

We’ll look into each of these and how to address their implications, but first let’s unpack what OSHA is really after with their weld fume regulations.

Three Factors for OSHA Weld Fume Regulations

  1. Number of welders you have working in your plant. Weld fume increases dramatically with the number of welders operating at one time. Between the risk of arc flash injuries and fume inhalation, the more welders working, the more safety needs to be considered. As for specific OSHA welding ventilation parameters: a minimum rate of 2,000 cubic feet (57 m3) per minute, per welder is required to be vented. The exception being where respirators, hoods or booths approved by the U.S. Bureau of Mines have been provided.
  2. Size of the space that houses the welder or welders. In OSHA’s guidelines 1910.1000 any space with less than a 16-foot ceiling height must have ventilation. Of course, any ceiling height over this limit and the other two factors dictate the regulation.
  3. The type of metal that is being welded. Understandably, different metals emit different kinds of fumes when welded. Depending on the metal being welded, these fumes can range from merely unpleasant to toxic or even lethal. Since most metals being used in fabrication are alloys, one must take into account every element that crosses the weld arc, not just the principal metal.

Hidden Dangers of Weld Fumes

A good example of an alloy that can cause health issue with its weld fumes is stainless steel. One of the most prevalent metals being welded today, stainless steel contains chromium as well as a small percentage of manganese. When stainless steel is welded, the resultant weld fumes contain a dangerous compound called Hexavalent Chromium. You may be familiar with the effects of Hexa Chrome if you are in the welding industry and it should be noted that NIOSH considers that all Cr(VI) compounds are carcinogens.

However, stainless steel is not the only way chromium can be introduced into the air. Other common industrial processes can create additional environmental hazards with relation to chromium, and by virtue, hexavalent chromium:

  • Chromate pigments used in dyes, paints and inks that might be applied to metals being welded
  • Anti-corrosive agents often have chromates and can also be added to surface coatings such as paint and primer
  • Any kind of chrome plating or chromium addition to metal alloys (as in the case of stainless steel)
  • Chrome application where chromic acid is being used
  • Any smelting of ferrochromium ore
  • Fumes from welding stainless steel or also, non-ferrous chromium alloys

(Adapted from OSHA Fact Sheet, Health effects of Hexavalent Chromium)

Making Your Welding Facility OSHA Compliant

OSHA Inspector SPWhen you assess your own facility, a good place to start is with the first three of OSHA’s welding ventilation concerns. Look into how many welders you have in place. Keep in mind the exponential nature of weld fumes and add another 2,000 cubic feet of exchange per welder for your weld fume ventilation system.

Be mindful, as well, of the size of your space. The smaller it is, the more urgency should be put into finding a ventilation solution that works. And, finally, any type of welding should be vented, but any welding that includes alloys made or coated with chromium needs to have primary attention. Prolonged exposure to Hexavalent Chromium can cause respiratory issues, irritation to the eyes, chrome ulcers and even cancer.

At the bare minimum, facilities should comply with OSHA’s weld fume ventilation standards. But that is the bare minimum. Compliance to OSHA’s regulations can save your company hundreds of thousands of dollars. In one case, a non-compliant business suffered a $7,000 per day fine until their facility was brought into agreement.

Clearly following OSHA regulations is in a business’s best interest. But how you move to compliance can make a difference in the results of your weld fume exhaust control as well as what flexibility you have for the future should you add welders or increase production.

Let’s look a little closer at the specific applications of weld fume ventilation. To keep things simple, we can view these solutions as two main product lines:

  • Smaller applications or fewer welders onsite
  • Larger plants with multiple welding stations

Small Facility Applications

In smaller shops, where welders are few and work stations are small, a solution of fume arms with a central collector serves well. This allows the welder to catch the weld fumes at their source and prevent ambient air from being polluted. Although, one drawback to this system is that the welder is responsible for positioning the fume arm funnel end. If the arm is not aimed at the target piece, the weld fumes will not be captured, thus affecting the ambient air quality.

One step up from the fume arm option, and one that does not require precision placement, would be a station-specific welding ventilation system. The advantages to stations are two-fold: 1) there is usually a built-in arc flash guard on these kind of weld fume exhaust control systems, and 2) the larger area captured means the welder is not having to manipulate anything to capture the weld fumes.

Both of these smaller facility solutions are within OSHA welding ventilation parameters and will be more than adequate to handle the task of cleaning weld fumes from the smaller space of air.

Important Trade Secret

Even the best system will not be effective if it is not installed and operated correctly. Some of the biggest fines from OSHA with respect to weld fume regulations have been to facilities that are simply not using their existing equipment correctly.

Large Facility Applications

When a facility is devoted to welding, and there are rows of welding stations, the source capture solutions mentioned above (Weld Fume Arms and Station-Specific Welding Ventilation) are simply too small to work efficiently enough. If the solution needed reaches large facility levels, a whole-building, or ambient capture system is required.

The starting point with any sizable weld fume ventilation project is to look at your air-turn target rate and the resulting air quality needs of the facility. Using vent mapping software for these applications can ensure you are creating a targeted and comprehensive solution.

Whole-building systems should have a central exterior extractor that takes the weld fume and vents it completely outside the building envelope. Remembering the compounding accumulation of weld fumes, fumes to this degree should be removed from the interior of the space to be dealt with.

Be aware that throwing a large, central extractor unit on the roof of an industrial facility will not be sufficient to get the results that OSHA, or the facility manager, are looking for. This is the ideal occasion to use Vent Mapping. By assessing the whole air situation, weld fume exhaust control can be targeted and more cost-effective. Vent Mapping can save thousands of dollars in misapplied equipment as well as minimizing installation time.

There are many examples of companies who have been pulled back from the brink of OSHA weld fume regulation fines and hazardous environments by a thoughtful approach and accurate solution. Vent Mapping and site-specific solutions are clearly the best and most cost-effective approach to a facility’s welding ventilation.

Regardless of the ventilation you do choose for your weld fume exhaust control, be thoughtful about how you approach the problem. Anticipate future needs as well as the concerns at hand. And remember that a custom solution is going to provide the best results every time. Results that cost less in the long term.

OSHA weld fume regulations remind us to make the right, and accurate choices with such a dangerous profession. Call a weld fume ventilation specialist today to get an assessment of your facility’s air status and breathe easy in the future.

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