It’s a tumultuous time for the automotive industry. Steel tariffs, oil prices, and the rise of electric and autonomous vehicles will continue to influence the creative directions and manufacturing decisions for several years. One factor that will not change, however, is the automotive industry’s need to protect its workers from harmful fumes and toxins that are ever present in their plants.
Nearly 1 million people in the United States alone are at risk of health problems associated with poor indoor air quality (IAQ) in automotive manufacturing. Manufacturing businesses would do well to take a closer look at some of the exposure risks associated with common processes in the automotive industry and take the necessary steps to protect the health of their employees and compliance of their facilities.
Automotive production workers are exposed to a variety of harmful airborne particulates that can vary significantly based on the materials and applications being used in the plant. But help is available. The following guidelines should help manufacturers understand what type of particulates they’re dealing with and how to reduce and eliminate their presence.
Manual and robotic welding are both used extensively in the automotive industry. The toxicity levels and their impact on workers’ health – and even on machinery – can fluctuate greatly due to the variables present in the process. The type of welding process (manual, robotic, TIG and MIG), base metals, filler metals and welding wire all impact the composition of airborne particulates.
Weld fumes contain many toxic elements and compounds, including hexavalent chromium (hex chrome), manganese, nickel, copper, vanadium, molybdenum, zinc and beryllium. These fumes are made up of tiny particles that when inhaled deeply into the lungs can cause immediate and long-term impacts on worker health.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for air filtration in manufacturing settings. A smart way to begin the process of installing or upgrading an existing air filtration system is to work with an experienced air quality system engineer who can test current IAQ levels and provide a detailed description of specific needs. Once the challenges in a facility have been identified, begin researching options in air filtration equipment that can effectively and efficiently clear the toxins from the air.
Many experts agree that utilizing source capture solutions whenever possible is a best practice. This minimizes the area in which harmful toxins are present, keeping the air throughout common areas of a facility cleaner and workers safer. Effective source capture systems can also keep toxic fumes out of the welder’s breathing zone to protect their health. There are several options for source capture solutions.
- Hoods, enclosures and partitions are a great way to keep dust and fumes contained. Enclosing robotic applications makes particulates easier to capture and reduces the volume of air the dust collector needs to move, minimizing energy and equipment costs.
- Fume arms can be a powerful, flexible source capture solution, especially for light-duty welding or cutting stations. More advanced fume arm systems include compressed air filter cleaning, built-in spark arrestance and acoustic silencing.
- Fume guns used to be considered too heavy and bulky with less than ideal weld quality, but there have been significant improvements over the past few years. They are a good option for welders when they need to be very flexible, mobile or working with large elements too big to be covered with a fume hood. Fume guns are also a smart option when working in enclosed spaces, eliminating the need for PPE that is often uncomfortable and sometimes worn incorrectly.
- Crossflow tables draw air up through the table and away from the welder’s breathing zone. This is a good option for stationary workers needing an all-in-one workspace surface area and air filtration system.
Unfortunately, fumes and smoke cannot always be captured at the source or at a high enough capture efficiency. When that is the case, use ambient filtration systems to turn over air for the entire facility. They can be used as the primary system when source capture is not technically feasible, as in some cases when working with large components that cannot be easily enclosed. They can also be used in conjunction with a source capture system to provide backup air quality control, especially when working with highly toxic materials.
A few other tips include:
- Use the best filters for the machinery and processes. Size, volume and composition of particulates should all be considered.
- Maximize the life of filters. A dynamic pulsing system can significantly increase filter life by pulsing excess dust off of filters before it becomes embedded in the filter media.
- Look for energy-saving features like smart control systems and variable frequency drives. These features can reduce energy consumption by 20 to 40 percent.
- Invest in an effective spark arrestance system when processes produce a lot of sparks (like cutting, grinding and welding). This will help prevent dust collector fires.
- Make sure the dust collector is equipped with a deflagration system to reduce the risk of a deadly dust collector explosion when working with highly combustible dusts, such as aluminum dusts.
Benefits to business
In addition to improving the health and safety of employees and complying with OSHA, improving IAQ in a manufacturing facility can improve the bottom line of a company. This is accomplished with improvements to productivity, recruiting and retention, product quality, and healthcare and legal fees.
Productivity: Productivity is damaged when absenteeism spikes or recruitment falls short. IAQ is a factor when young workers make job decisions. Workers understand the effects of dust and welding fumes on their health, and they don’t want to take any chances. Considering the shortage of skilled workers in manufacturing, the need to keep employees happy and healthy is profound.
Recruiting and retention: Automotive companies competing to recruit welders and other skilled tradespeople will find that a clean, pleasant environment pays dividends through lower turnover and more successful recruiting efforts for in-demand skilled workers. High turnover hurts companies in several ways, including:
- Costs associated with hiring and training new workers
- Lower productivity from less experienced employees
- Gaps in productivity between employees
With the shortage of skilled welders weighing on the minds of many manufacturers, offering jobs in safer and healthier facilities is one way to make working for a company more attractive to potential employees.
Product quality: Product quality can also suffer if particulates are not controlled. This is especially visible in manufacturing processes that involve paints and coatings. When airborne dust gets into the paint line, it can result in a poor-quality finish in the final product.
Also, particulates from oil mist applications can accumulate on or in sensitive equipment, clogging air lines, increasing friction or causing accelerated wear and tear on moving parts. If fine particulates make their way into electronic components, they can cause these components to fail.
Healthcare and legal costs: Prioritizing worker health will result in lower healthcare costs and a significant reduction in the risk of legal action. Long-term health impacts of exposure to toxic fumes can lead to skyrocketing healthcare costs. Plus, when companies allow poor IAQ to persist, they open themselves up to fines and legal fees from OSHA as well as lawsuits from workers suffering from the effects of poor IAQ.
The return on investment for improving air quality is well documented. Studies have shown the payoff can come in as little as two years. In short, taking measures to improve IAQ makes good economic sense.