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How automakers are dealing with air quality issues

Automakers are constantly looking for new ways to boost their productivity and to improve their workers’ efficiency. But as they do it, they have to make sure that they are providing a safe work environment for their employees. Most of the times, auto manufacturers have difficulties in maintaining the high indoor air quality in the facilities where they assemble vehicles. Poor indoor quality is often the main factor that has a negative impact on their goals and damages their workers’ health.

The automotive manufacturing industry relies on numerous metalworking processes to build vehicles, and employees are often exposed to airborne particulates. Plastic processing, rubber manufacturing, gridding, cutting, machining, and welding are the most common processes that impact air quality. The best solution to improve air quality is to follow strict guidelines and to install air filtration units.

In this article, we will try to understand how automakers are dealing with air quality issues.

What factors lead to poor air quality?

Smoke and fumes are the two main factors that cause air quality issues in a vehicle making plants. The first sign fumes are damaging air quality is the haze they create around the facilities where employees work. However, this is not the only effect they have, the airborne particulates from weld fumes settle on surfaces and even if they are small in size, they can damage electronics and equipment. But what’s most important, when weld fumes are present in excessive quantities, they pose health dangers for workers. Keeping this in mind, the automaking industry has to respect clear policies and procedures to limit people’s exposure to smoke and fumes.

Fumes and smoke vary in toxicity according to the type of process that generates them. The filler metals, base metal, and welding rod composition also influence their toxicity. For example, shielded metal arc welding generates more fumes than gas tungsten arc welding.

Around 85% of the fumes produced during the welding process come from the electrode, and the particles have from 0.1 to 5.0 microns. The average quantity of particles 1,000 pounds of weld wire generate is 15 lbs.

The welding process is hazardous for people because it implies the use of UV radiation, exhaust fumes, and high temperatures. They often produce harmful contaminants and if the automaker doesn’t use a reliable welding extraction system, they can harm workers’ health.

Why are welding fumes harmful to people’s health?

The contaminants generated during the welding process can easily enter people’s airways when they breathe, and they can get into their bronchial tubes and lungs. Because they are of microscopic size, they can easily enter the pulmonary alveoli and destroy the cells. It’s advisable to prevent people from inhaling these particles because they lead to complex health problems.

Airborne contaminants usually appear in container machines, during steel construction, in rail vehicle manufacturing and plants and there are two ways to remove them at the source, the automaker has to use a fume extraction welding torch combined with a welding fume extraction system.

OSHA states that when exposing themselves for a long period to welding fumes people can experience symptoms like nausea, dizziness, throat irritation, nose irritation and eye redness. If the exposure continues for more than a year, workers can experience conditions like urinary tract disorders, lung cancer, larynx cancer and urinary tract cancer. Depending on the type of fumes generated during the manufacturing process, sometimes they can also cause nervous system damage, kidney damage, stomach ulcers and metal fume fever. Sometimes, welding generated gases like argon, helium and carbon dioxide that displace oxygen in the air and cause suffocation.

The most common airborne hazards automakers are dealing with are:

  • Manganese is a common element used in all types of welding. When not controlled it can lead to manganism, a health condition that has symptoms similar to Parkinson. When the workers expose themselves for long periods to manganese and they don’t seek medical help they can suffer from damages to the central nervous system, loss of neurobehavioral function, and changes in the neuropsychological system.
  • Hexavalent chromium is generated when a chromium component is used. When the electric arc gets in contact with a shiny metal it generates CR(VI) fumes. They are highly dangerous for human health because they can affect the lungs, throat, nose, eyes and skin. Many times, it’s also one of the factors that lead to cancer.
  • Oil mist is highly used in metalworking processes and it’s often associated with slip-and-fall accidents. When exposing themselves to these airborne substances people can also suffer from skin ailments, allergies, respiratory problems and cancer.

Are there any challenges to remove the welding fumes?

The greatest difficulty is to remove the welding fumes but not the shielding gas.  When automakers are using direct welding fume extraction, the level of oxygen is quite high and there are great chances to also extract the shielding gas. This can lead to the formation of pores in some materials. But if they use instead a high shielding gas flow rate, they can counter this process because it generates high shielding gas consumption. It’s always recommended to collaborate with a company experienced in removing welding fumes because they have devices specially designed to capture welding fumes.

How does a clean plant look like?

Automakers strive to get their plants clean, but this term means something different for different facilities. If someone walks in a plant and notices blue haze around the lights, they conclude that the facility has air quality problems. But not all issues are so easy to identify, so the manufacturers have to conduct regular check-ups to make sure that their plants are meeting the standards.

All automakers focus on two areas when they measure the air quality, in the facility’s ambient air and in the workers’ breathing zone. It’s always recommended to collaborate with an accredited company to inspect the firm and to make recommendations on how to improve the conditions. OSHA established the following limits:

  • Cadmium: 0.005 mg/m3
  • Chromium: 0.005 mg/m3
  • Lead: 0.05 mg/m3
  • Nickel: 1.0 mg/m3
  • Manganese: 5.0 mg/m3

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