April 6, 2004
Being expected to wear more than one hat at work these days is commonplace??but not more than one welding helmet.
For welders, it's more important than ever to do more—perform more processes, know more about metals, be familiar with more welding situations—with safety equipment that can meet the requirements of every situation.
At the same time it's important to maintain a safe work environment, whether in the shop or in the field. This requirement stems from increasingly stringent safety regulations, long work hours that create a demand for comfort, and the variety of skill sets needed in the workplace.
"Fabricators are being asked to weld a wider variety of projects using widely varying welding processes," said Jim Harris, product manager at The Lincoln Electric Co., Cleveland. "This demand, in turn, affects the demand for greater flexibility out of one operator helmet."
To cope with such diverse demands on welders, helmet manufacturers have investigated and invested in several technologies designed to protect welders better and help them increase productivity.
Although the technologies used in welding helmets today may not be as mysterious as a sleight of hand, the ideas of variable shade levels, autodarkening, and hands-free and fatigue-free wear are intriguing to welders, helmet manufacturers say.
Autodarkening, for example, is a buzzword used by many helmet manufacturers to describe one way to make variable shade levels available to the user, eliminating the need for the welder to nod his or her head to drop the welding helmet down just before striking an arc.
"Today's welding helmets and, more specifically, the autodarkening welding helmets are bringing about increased productivity and safety," said Steve Kickham, director of marketing for Jackson Products, St. Charles, Mo.
"The introduction of the powered autodarkening lens, the variable lens setting, and, most recently, the solar-powered versions have significantly reduced the dangers of eye damage, freed up hands that previously slapped down hoods, and might relegate the head tip to drop face shields into permanent retirement," said Kevin Coughlin, president of Hoodlum Welding Gear, Minneapolis.
Autodarkening technology can be especially useful for welders who require several different levels of shading because they use several welding processes during the day.
"To address the wide variety of welding processes being used by fabricators, manufacturers such as Lincoln Electric are creating helmets with variable shade levels that can quickly and easily be switched to accommodate the correct level of darkness for a changeover in welding processes," Harris said.
Autodarkening helmets also can help welders with limited skill sets, Harris said.
"Autodarkening helmets with variable shade control make it easier even for beginning welders to see and position the weld, even if they are new to a particular welding process," he said. "An autodarkening helmet offers a tremendous advantage for novices learning how to position their electrode in the welding joint and establish the arc."
A chin-operated helmet is another option for hands-free shade control, one that Cherokee Industries, Ord, Neb., has offered for the last 15 years.
"Chin-operated helmets offer all the hands-free features plus give the welder a clear viewing window instead of a shaded lens," said Roland Shafer, president of Cherokee Industries. "The chin strap operates the visor. [The welder can] lower the jaw slightly and open the visor effortlessly; the amount of jaw movement controls the amount of opening. Release chin pressure and the visor closes in place. The visor can also be locked open for grinding or extended viewing. A slight nod of the head closes the visor."
All of the technologies used to make welding helmets user-friendly also are aimed at making welding more ergonomic.
Long hours and a premium on comfort are two trends that have led helmet manufacturers to make their products more adjustable.
For example, Lincoln Electric has addressed the need for comfort with a helmet that allows the welder to set the tilt angle to a wider range of positions, as well as how close it is positioned to the face.
"Manufacturers are creating ergonomic designs that allow for adjustability in head size, angle of tilt, and back-and-forward position of the mask," Harris said. "This way, even someone who wears glasses can find a comfortable setting. And if a welder is able to stay under the hood longer, productivity will increase."
Comfort and safety aren't the only considerations when choosing a welding helmet, however. A trend in the industry indicates that welders enjoy reflecting their personality by wearing welding helmets that incorporate graphics into their designs.
"Within the last two years more and more manufacturers have started utilizing graphics," Harris said. "Because people have to actually wear this personal protective gear, they want something that looks good and reflects their own personal style. You can see this trend also in safety glasses and hard hats, which are becoming more stylish. In the future we expect to see even more personalization of welding helmets, geared to specific interest groups."
Kickham also sees this trend continuing into the future.
"Welders want the opportunity to express their personality and add a bit of character with their helmets," he said.
Graphics aren't the only way welding helmets have become more personalized, however—even the shapes of some helmets have changed. For example, Hoodlum Welding Gear offers helmets that look like skulls, as well as a variety of animal heads, such as gorillas, pigs, and bulldogs.
"Lightweight and equipped with autodarkening lens assemblies, these helmets have turned the 'welding guy' into a rock star," Coughlin said. "The helmets inspire younger journeymen worldwide to express themselves in their work."
Shafer thinks that expressing your personality in this way is OK, but that it shouldn't be the entire focus when purchasing a helmet.
"It's great to have a helmet that displays individualism. If you want to stick decals of your favorite team or what have you on the helmet, then by all means do it, but the reason you wear a welding helmet is for eye and face protection, so focus on that," Shafer said.
With all the different types of helmets available to welders, everyone has a choice.
Shafer reported that he sees more requests for chin-operated helmets than their light-activated counterparts, while Kickham said he's noticed welders seeking autodarkening helmets most often.
According to Harris, welders are looking for lower-cost, single- or dual-shade models instead of more expensive, fully adjustable models. He thinks that as welders move toward autodarkening helmets, they will look to basic models as a starting point with that technology.
Driven by such diverse customer needs, manufacturers are investigating helmet designs for the future.
For instance, Shafer said that Cherokee will continue to focus primarily on eye protection in its helmets. On the other hand, Harris noted that Lincoln Electric is hoping to enhance the design of its helmets' outer shell for better coverage and protection, lighter weight, and more adjustability.
Kickham pointed out, however, that lighter-weight helmets aren't always necessarily the best buy, even as their use of autodarkening technology increases.
"Lighter weight doesn't always mean better," he said. "Making the helmets lighter [can cause] some helmets to lose a little protection around the throat area or sides of the head."
Even though information about helmet design and quality is abundant, affordability continues to play a major role in welders' helmet-purchasing decisions.
"People will continue to see introductions of lower-cost autodarkening filters into the marketplace," Kickham said. "These helmets will continue to allow the hobbyist welder to own this technology without purchasing a high-cost helmet. At the same time people can expect to see more features added to higher-end models that are ideal for the professional welder."
Practical Welding Today® acknowledges the following sources used in this article:
Cherokee Industries, www.accustrike.com
Hoodlum Welding Gear, www.hoodlum-welding.com
Jackson Products Inc., www.jacksonproducts.com
The Lincoln Electric Co., www.lincolnelectric.com
Photo courtesy of Hoodlum Welding Gear, Minneapolis, Minn.
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