Any workplace that involves welding or metal-cutting operations faces numerous air quality challenges. As shipbuilders know, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issues standards for air quality in the industry. Title 29 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 1915 holds numerous regulations that manufacturers need to be mindful of. Failure to comply can carry serious legal and financial liabilities. Few industries receive this level of scrutiny. As OSHA says, these standards apply to workers “on the shore, pier, terminal, yard, shipyard, machine shop, riverbank, etc., as well as on the vessels afloat or in drydocks or graving docks.”
Workers’ health is a serious concern, as well. Weld fumes, in particular, are a major inhalation hazard. The high levels of heat involved in welding produce particulates of microscopic size; these particulates are easily inhaled and quickly become dangerous for workers. Substances such as hexavalent chromium travel in weld fumes. This byproduct of welding stainless steel is a known carcinogen and, when inhaled, has been linked to incidences of cancer. OSHA regulates workers’ exposure to other weld fume components, as well, including manganese and beryllium. Exposure to these substances carries serious risks, from major respiratory problems to manganism, a condition with symptoms similar to Parkinson’s Disease.
Shipbuilding creates serious air quality challenges in part because of the nature of the weldments seen in the industry. Welders move along large components, making it difficult to capture the weld fumes produced. Constantly moving a fume arm is often impractical, or at the very least inconvenient. Welders, under pressure to meet deadlines, often fail to keep up with fume capture. Another challenging situation is welding in a ship’s hold. This frequently encountered situation makes it very difficult for the welder to capture weld fumes, at least with conventional equipment.
The shipbuilding industry, and many others, faces yet another challenge, today: attracting and retaining skilled workers. Young workers are turning to service sector jobs, rather than manufacturing, and a skills gap has appeared. The American Welding Society estimates that manufacturers will see a shortage of 290,000 skilled workers by 2020. One way for employers to set themselves apart and attract the best workers is to maintain a clean and safe workplace. Good air quality is a key component of that.