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Industrial hygienists, union stewards and craft work together to meet stricter safety standards

ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn. -- In an effort to meet more stringent safety standards now in place for welders and pipefitters, the Safety, Health and Environmental personnel at Arnold Air Force Base are working with union stewards of the Air Engineering Metal Trades Council and other craft team members to make adjustments and implement new equipment.

According to Bing Bragg, an industrial hygienist at Arnold, there was recently a change to the recommended exposure limit to the fumes created when welding stainless steel. These fumes are known as hexavalent chromium, or chromium-6.

“The limit is stricter than what was previously set regarding exposure to hexavalent chromium,” Bragg said. “So we had several meetings with the union stewards and craft to provide them with information on the new standards and discuss what types of new PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) that would work for them.”

Part of this process included bringing in different vendors on base to give presentations on the different equipment available.

One type of PPE suggested was the use of Powered Air Purifying Respirators.

“Each PAPR helmet is a cost of $2,300, and our initial estimate is that we need at least 30 of these filter helmets,” said Warner Holt, group manager of Manufacturing for the Test Operations and Sustainment contractor.

Though PAPR helmets have already been in use by some of the welders at Arnold, with the new limitations in place, every welder and those directly working with welders are now required to use one.

Mike Lance, union steward for the pipefitters at Arnold, explained that these are “top-of-the-line hoods.”

“When using the PAPRs, you’re only taking in filtered air, so you’re not exposed to any of the fumes,” he said.

In addition to the new hoods, Lance added that the welders and pipefitters must change into a full body coveralls before performing their work, and anytime they go out on break they must properly dispose of the coveralls and put on a new suit before continuing their work.

Another step taken to prevent exposure was to establish confined welding areas in the shop.

“We are trying to prevent exposure to the rest of the shop,” said Vaughn Wilson, a supervisor at the Model and Machine Shop. “We had a cover constructed for all the welding to be done inside and set up ducting and fans for ventilating the gas out of the Model Shop.”

Wilson mentioned the new requirements were implemented midway through the heater replacement project for C-Plant and thanked the crew for their cooperation.

“Jeff Tate, Technology/Manufacturing planner and scheduler, went to work right away getting all the right people and equipment needed to do the C-Plant header work safely,” he said. “Eddie Ledford and Jason Colbert also stepped up and continued to weld remaining headers in the boilermaker shop using the Powered Air Purifying Respirator equipment.”

He stated that boilermakers Mike Dickey and Cecil Beavers assisted Ledford and Colbert in making welds to tie the new headers to the existing ducting, while Glenn Thomas oversaw the completion of this phase of the project. Don Metcalf and Robbie Simmons were also instrumental in assisting the crews using the PAPRs and monitoring the work area.

“Their effort, attitude and willingness to get the job complete using these new methods is much appreciated,” Wilson said. “This crew overcame several obstacles to complete this work in in the elements welding in extreme conditions with the heat in the 90-degree range.”

Wilson added the new work methods have meant changes in daily work practices for everyone in the Model Shop, but especially the welders.

“They’ve had to get used to wearing the different equipment and dressing in and out between working the job and taking breaks,” Wilson said. “Wearing the new hoods can also be heavy and they can limit the positioning. It will just take some time to get adjusted but the health and safety of the shop personnel is our priority.”

Lance shares the same outlook, stating that even though the new processes presented challenges at first, safety is of utmost importance.

“We see the risk and we want to be safe,” he said. “Our number one concern is safety.”