Savvy companies are looking at filtration of toxic air beyond regulatory compliance as a productivity tool that can enhance quality and profits.

In view of recent and pending state and federal regulations on venting pollutants to the atmosphere, companies are rethinking their handling of smoke and fumes that emanate from welding and cutting operations.

To health, safety and environmental officials, the prevention of venting into the air outside buildings has been imminent for many years. Their longstanding point of view is that the safest and most responsible method of handling such materials is to capture them at the point of source and filter them out of ambient air.

Yet, even while point-of-source extraction is not only a good idea but imminent, in today’s economy many companies are going to resist investment in the equipment necessary to do so.

For an increasing number of industrial operations, that resistance is contrary to a crucial reality: Efficient and effective point-of-source handling of smoke, fumes and oil mists can be a significant productivity tool as well as a health, safety and environmental necessity.

A critical need

The need for capturing and filtering welding smoke, for example, has become increasingly clear and familiar to those with extensive welding, brazing and cutting operations. Welding operations that yield hexavalent chromium (often referred to as “hex” chromium or chrome-6) and manganese have workers, not only the welders but also anyone in the vicinity who may be exposed to harmful concentrations of these materials. Hex chromium is a material that helps prevent oxidation in finished steel products, and manganese is a common steel alloy for wear resistance.

Hex chromium is classified as an IARC-1 (International Agency for Research on Cancer) human carcinogen, posing serious threat of lung cancer. Other adverse health effects associated with overexposure include irritation of the nose, throat, lungs and mucous membranes. Some workers develop an allergic sensitization to chromium, whereby contact with even very tiny amounts can cause a serious skin rash. Extensive exposure can, in some cases, also cause permanent eye damage.

Welding smoke or fumes containing manganese are similarly stressful to workers who are exposed to concentrations above minimum levels. Long-term exposure to high levels of manganese by inhalation in humans may result in central nervous system effects. Visual reaction time, hand steadiness and eye-hand coordination have been measured in workers who were chronically exposed to such fumes. Obviously, the condition itself places workers in additionally grave jeopardy.

The list of hazardous welding fumes and harmful effects is a long one, so suffice it to say that exposure either through inhalation or by contact with the skin can be very harmful to workers and also potentially encumber employers with long-term consequences. The optimal solution to those dangers is the point-of-source capture and filtration of smoke and fumes.

Point-of source capture and productivity

The point-of-source capture and filtration of smoke and fumes from tools such as cutting and welding equipment is available in many forms, ranging from relatively small stand-alone units to completely integrated systems that support welding stations in booths or other enclosures.

Because properly selected and engineered air collection and filtration systems often improve plant air quality to above “normal”, they can enable workers to stay more alert and focused throughout the day, thereby avoiding the headaches and job-related errors that can occur when welders and workers in their vicinity are exposed to welding smoke and fumes. Thus, workers are more productive and expensive mistakes and rework may be reduced.

For example, a production line includes approximately 220 robots, of which 180 perform welding operations. The layout of the application-specific, turnkey air collection and filtration system consists of modular units with high-performance collectors that completely filter and return the air to the plant, providing major savings on utilities. Because the system is engineered to draw smoke, dust and aerosols as near as possible to the source, a cleaner, healthier and safer plant environment is maintained.

The systems are engineered to require lower maintenance, so the people who are running a line have fewer disturbances to their primary work. With a climate control air filtration system, employee morale may also be improved. Plus, the unpolluted environment can enhance product quality due to the diminished smoke and dust in the production area.

Fergie Haughton, an air systems specialist at Clean Air America (Rome, Ga.), says that many of his company’s customers enjoy productivity improvements of between 2 and 10 percent after air collection and filtration systems have been installed.

Clean Air America engineers, manufacturers, installs and maintains a broad line of air collection and filtration systems for welding and other operations throughout the aerospace, automotive, laser, mining and construction industries.

“Even a 2 percent improvement is a very meaningful one to many companies,” Haughton says. “It often not only improves the worker safety and environment, but often also speeds up product deliveries and results in quality improvements as well.”

Haughton adds that the typical payback for an air filtration system is surprising to most people. Depending on the size of the system and application it supports, the system can pay for itself in months to a year or two, he says.

Beyond productivity

Most plant managers are aware of plant costs, including equipment, personnel and energy expenses on a day-to-day basis. So when it comes to the issue of eliminating smoke and fumes from the plant, they may be inclined to vent it into the atmosphere (as long as that is permitted).

Yet, in plants running heating and air conditioning systems, venting becomes more expensive than air collection and filtration systems. The reason: Plant air loss means loss of heated or chilled air (a.k.a. “energy losses”).

The amount of money sent into the atmosphere along with vented gasses can be astonishing, even to plant managers. Glen Tuplin, facilities manager at F&P Georgia, a manufacturer of components for Honda and Nissan, says his 200,000-plus-square-foot plant has cubic-feet-per-minute (cfm) air conditioning and heating costs of approximately $2.00 and $4.00, respectively.

“Our exhaust total air volume was 103,000 cfm,” Tuplin explains. “Because our system captured and returned plant air (rather than exhausting it to the outside), it was simple math to see that we could save $200,000 annually with the system.”

Another significant benefit of the internal air collection and filtration system is fire suppression. Many different plant operations produce dust, aromatics, oil mists and other flammable substances. Tuplin says the inclusion of a fire suppression system was one of the major fringe benefits of the Clean Air America system he had designed for F&P Georgia.

Tuplin adds that the air system has also contributed to plant appearance, which makes a difference in the automotive sector.

“When you’re dealing with auto makers of the stature and standards of Honda and Nissan, you expect them to be demanding,” he says. “And when Honda comments your plant is a benchmark for clean air quality, you know you’ve done the right thing.”

For more information, contact Clean Air America Inc. at mark.echols@clean-air.com or visit www.clean-air.com.