Welding for military vehicles and equipment shares all of the risks common to welding for other applications. However, working on armored vehicles, ships, tanks and other large equipment comes with its own set of challenges in terms of air quality and respiratory health. Here’s what to know, and the best way to protect workers.
Weld fume risks
To see what sets military vehicle and equipment fabrication apart from other applications, it’s important to understand the factors that impact weld fume exposure risks.
Robotic vs. manual welding. Robotic welders can generally be confined within hoods that collect weld fumes and prevent them from spreading throughout the facility. However, much of the welding done for armored vehicles, ships and other military equipment is still manual; the size of the pieces being welded, the customization required for military equipment, and the small number of pieces produced compared to commercial manufacturing make automation difficult. The manual welding required for many military applications puts welders at direct risk if fumes are not controlled at the source.
Piece size. While smaller components, like most auto parts, can be welded on a stationary bench with built-in weld fume control, large equipment like vehicles or tanks require welders to be mobile. Ship hulls, aircraft, submarines and fuel tanks may require welders to work inside the piece, generating fumes in an enclosed space. The size and shape of many types of military equipment limit the types of source capture methods that can be used.
Weld wire material. The vast majority of weld fumes – up to 85 percent – come from the weld wire. For every 1,000 lbs. of standard wire used, 10 to 20 lbs. of particulate is generated. Looking at it another way, that’s roughly 25 to 50 million fume particles for every pound of wire burned.
Weld fumes contain many toxic elements and compounds, including nickel, copper, vanadium, molybdenum, zinc and manganese. Solid stainless steel weld wire, which the Department of Defense requires for some armor plating applications, also produces significant amounts of hexavalent chromium, one of the most dangerous toxins welders are exposed to. Other applications require the use of flux-cored wire, which produces significantly higher levels of inhalable particulates per pound of weld wire consumed.
Base material and coatings. While most weld fumes are produced by the weld wire and filler materials, the type and thickness of the base material can also impact exposure risk. Standard carbon steel, stainless steel, armored steel plate and beryllium alloys have different types and levels of toxic elements that can be released when heated.
Some military applications also have special coatings that produce toxins when heated during the welding process. In general, welding thicker materials common to military applications requires a hotter weld torch, which produces more weld fumes. It should be noted that some types of armored steel require lower heat to avoid cracking.
PPE vs. source capture
For manual welding applications for armored vehicles, ships and other large pieces of military equipment, a limited number of options are available for protecting workers. Weld fumes must either be captured at the source before they enter the breathing zone, or workers must be provided with personal protective equipment (PPE).
Powered-air purifying respirators (PAPRs) can be used to protect workers from weld fume exposure. They do a very effective job during the time that they are worn. However, there are several disadvantages to this approach:
- PAPRs only protect workers who are actually wearing them. Welders will be protected during the welding process, but if weld fumes are not controlled, they will propagate throughout the facility and put all workers at risk.
- Many workers find PAPRs uncomfortable and unwieldy. For welders working on large equipment, visibility and mobility are crucial. Compliance can become a struggle if welders find that their PPE reduces their effectiveness or comfort level on the job.
- PAPRs have significant initial and ongoing costs. Consumable filters and replacement costs for equipment can add up quickly.
Source capture is usually a better option for dealing with weld fumes. It’s important to select a source capture option that keeps fumes out of the breathing zone. Hoods, while an excellent choice for robotic applications, do not provide protection for manual welders. If hoods are being used to keep fumes from spreading through the facility, welders working inside the hoods will still need PPE.
Fume guns, dust collectors
Fume guns are an excellent alternative for manual welding of large components. They provide significant advantages for welders who need to move around or inside large pieces of equipment.
- Fume guns combine the welding torch and fume extraction in a single package, so weld fumes are captured right at the source as they are generated. This eliminates the need to move fume arms or reposition mobile fume extraction devices as the welder moves. Source capture is always right where it is needed, even if the welder is highly mobile.
- Modern fume guns are highly efficient, capturing 95 percent or more of weld fumes as they are produced. Unlike fume arms or hoods, they capture fumes before they reach the welder’s breathing zone.
- Fume guns work well in environments where overhead cranes are required to position large components.
- Fume guns are the only effective source capture solution for welders inside confined spaces, such as ship hulls, fuel tanks or submarines.
Previous generations of fume guns were not always well accepted by welders. Older fume guns tended to be bulky, heavy and reduce visibility of the weld seam. Newer, sleeker models like the RoboVent Extractor eliminate these concerns. These guns provide high efficiency fume extraction in a package not much bigger than a standard weld torch.
Fume guns should be paired with high-vacuum dust collectors. Here, manufacturers have a few options:
- For a large number of welders, several fume guns can be connected to a single hi-vac extractor. This works best in environments where each welder stays within a defined area.
- Smaller hi-vac extractors can be hooked up to one or two fume guns at a time. This option is perfect for shops with a small number of welders.
- For individual welders working inside confined areas or who need a high degree of mobility, small portable hi-vac extractors like the RoboVent ProCube or ProCube Mini provide maximum flexibility. Welders can easily move these mini extractors right along with them.
Ambient air quality
Source capture or PPE should always be used to protect welders from toxic fumes during the welding process. However, ambient air quality options may be appropriate for some facilities, as well. Ambient options, including ventilation/makeup air and filtration systems, can improve indoor air quality for the facility as a whole. Consider ambient solutions if:
- Source capture solutions alone are not meeting indoor air quality goals. This may be the case in high-production environments. For example, fume guns, while offering excellent control of fumes over the welding zone, will not control fumes rising from still-hot weld seams after the welder has moved on.
- Welders are working with highly toxic materials and want to keep exposure levels to an absolute minimum. If welders are working with stainless steel, beryllium alloys or toxic coatings, consider taking air quality samples to measure ambient exposure levels for highly toxic elements.
- If a minimal amount of weld fumes are produced, in some cases, such as only occasional welding within a larger production facility, an ambient system paired with PPE for the actual welders may be enough.
Choosing the right solution for your facility can be complex. If you are not sure what is right for you, a qualified air quality system engineer can help you analyze your processes and select the most efficient and economical approach for your facility.