Welding ventilation goes to school
Ferris State University's welding program learns that manufacturers aren't the only ones that need to clear the air
The concern to protect welders from the dangers of inhaling welding fumes is not limited to just metal fabricating companies. The schools training the next generation of manufacturing workers need to be concerned as well. In fact, the pressure may be greater for the schools because if the student studying welding doesn't like the environment in which he or she is learning, the student may decide that there is no future in manufacturing.
May 31, 2010, passed without much attention. In metal fabricating circles that’s not surprising, because most companies had taken steps to eliminate the surprises.
That last day in May marked the deadline, set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), for metal fabricating companies to implement “engineering controls” to limit welders’ exposure to hexavalent chromium, also known as CR(VI) (see Figure 1). Fortunately, most companies had taken steps to beef up their welding ventilation efforts with a variety of new investments.
Companies had plenty of time to prepare for that May deadline. On Feb. 28, 2006, OSHA issued its hexavalent chromium standard for industrial settings. The new standard lowered the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for the carcinogenic compound to 5 micrograms of CR(VI) per cubic meter of air as an eight-hour time-weighted average. The new PEL was one-tenth of the old PEL.
The OSHA ruling particularly applied to those welders working with stainless steel material. CR(VI) is produced when the electric arc hits the shiny metal, and continual inhalation of such fumes over time is not considered a good thing.
So the new reality for most welders working indoors is some sort of ventilating device to whisk away the fumes produced during the welding process. It’s not something that comes naturally to old-timers, but a welding procedure specification undoubtedly reminds them that the ventilation has to be up and running if welding is being done.
It’s an educational process that needs to occur, and in some places, it is. Ventilation is becoming a part of basic welding education, which is good for those student welders and the industry as a whole.
A Need to Clear the Air
Ferris State University, Big Rapids, Mich., is probably not readily recognized by the average parent of a college-aged student, but if anyone has any link to welding, they likely know about the school’s welding education program. The school has offered some sort of welding training going back to 1955.
Today it’s probably the school’s welding engineering technology program that garners the most attention. Established in 1984, the welding program is designed to produce plant-level welding engineering technology graduates who are capable of designing and engineering weldments and also implement welding processes. The graduates go on to work in a variety of manufacturing settings, with many of the program’s 375 alumni eventually enjoying some sort of international work assignment. Program administrators estimate that compensation for graduates in May 2008 averaged $58,000 annually.
For those not ready to pursue a bachelor’s degree in welding engineering technology, the school also offers an associate’s degree in welding technology. The goal is to graduate students who are involved in testing and improving welding processes, procedures, and equipment.
The program has earned a pretty good reputation within the welding industry. Faculty members have been recognized for their teaching excellence, and the American Welding Society honored the program with an Image of Welding Award in 2005.
A talented staff is a key ingredient to any successful academic program, but the latest technology also helps attract prospective students. Program coordinator and associate professor Jeffrey Carney realized that in early 2008 as the staff began to look at upgrading the ventilation system that was cobbled together over the years as the original one-room welding laboratory was expanded numerous times over the year. The emergence of the CR(VI) issue within the metal fabricating industry further fueled the desire for change. In fact, both issues needed to be addressed for the future vitality of the Ferris State welding program.
Carney said every student who has entered the program over the last eight years has sat in his office and accompanied him on a tour of the school’s welding facility. He’s noticed one important factor in getting the prospective student to enter the Ferris State welding program.
“You really need to convince the mothers that you are going to take care of their child in this environment,” he said.
Fortunately, school administrators agreed. They set aside $900,000 for the program to upgrade its ventilation system.
A Breath of Fresh Air
Luckily, Carney had spent some time selling welding supplies and ventilation systems prior to his career as an educator. He had an idea of the ventilation equipment mix that was needed and began to invite technology suppliers to make presentations.
The new ventilation equipment and its vendor had to meet several criteria:
- Although the school’s lab has considerably less arc-on time than a manufacturing facility, it still needed robust equipment that could be counted on to work every day. A semester is a finite amount of time, and students need every minute of every hour in a school day to meet academic expectations. Downtime associated with equipment failure wasn’t an option, particularly as robust enrollment numbers meant that every welding and cutting station would be occupied on a daily basis.
- The vendor had to demonstrate a deep knowledge of air management. When ventilation equipment starts removing a significant amount of air across the building’s more than 10,000 square feet of manufacturing space, that air needs to be replaced. Determining how to do that successfully was just as important as supplying the ventilation equipment.
- The school wanted a variety of ventilation equipment offerings, ranging from backdraft tables to articulated arms. It’s an educational institution, after all, and what better way to teach students about ventilation than to show them how the different equipment is used.
- The ventilation equipment had to fit within the confines of the single-floor facility. At some points, the building’s ceiling drops to 12 feet at its lowest. The vendor and the eventual contractor had to be creative in making sure the equipment covered the entire facility even with building obstacles in the way.
Ferris State University’s welding program selected RoboVent to supply the equipment and expertise during installation, which was a challenge unto itself. Everything had to be installed over the summer of 2008—a four-month time frame.
Getting It Done
Time wasn’t the only challenge. The project had to meet budget requirements, not a small deal when considering the size of the project. The welding program was not only getting new ventilation equipment, but also an air makeup system, a new electrical system, and new welding components.
“Our No. 1 concern is the safety of our students, faculty, and visitors that come into the lab,” Carney said.
How the welding fumes would be ventilated required some thought. Did the program administrators want the students to have the ability to switch off ventilation equipment at each booth? Carney and his co-workers decided that wouldn’t be a good idea because he wanted ventilation to be a requirement, not a choice. As a result, the ventilation system and its seven individual ventilators (see Figure 2) run on constant-velocity motors, instead of variable-speed models.
“It’s one of the things that we learned,” Carney said, “when it did come to finally specifying out the equipment.”
With the assistance of the Ferris State Physical Plant Department, the project contractor wrapped up the equipment installation before the first day of class for the fall semester. The school now has 64 ventilated welding and cutting stations (see Figure 3). Most of the bench welding stations have backdraft tables. Canopy-type hoods are used over the portable cutting tool areas and robotic welding systems. Downdraft tables are used on the plasma and laser cutting tables. Articulated ventilation arms are used for temporary booths in the middle of the lab.
“Our enrollment is at record numbers right now with the welding program, so we have some temporary booths in the middle of the lab surrounded by curtains and screens,” Carney said. “I will walk by and move the arm over the kids‘ heads. Hey, they work great.”
That’s 195 welding students total. The record enrollment comes on the heels of Ferris State University graduating its 25th welding engineering technology class in 2009.
“The university did us a solid. There’s no doubt about it,” Carney added. “We would not be at the record enrollment we have today without this new ventilation system.”
Everyone is breathing a lot easier on the Big Rapids campus. That’s for sure.
The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.