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Face masks and respirators are an integral part of welding protection and worksite safety along with eye, face, and body protection. Welding causes a lot of heat, flying sparks, infrared radiation, hot metal embers, gases and fumes, all of which could harm your eyes and face. You need to get up close and personal with what you’re welding to make sure that your job is done well, which makes protection especially important.
It depends on the mask, features, and work environment, but with proper care, a high-quality, reusable welding mask should last you many years. Most auto-darkening welding helmets will last between seven to ten years, and that’s mostly because the sensors, lenses, and batteries wear out eventually (although those can be replaced in some helmets). Properly maintaining your masks isn’t terribly hard, either: it’s a matter of cleaning the helmet after using it, storing it in a safe and clean place, and replacing any replaceable parts when they’re due for a change.
As with a lot of other safety equipment, you get what you pay for. A cheaper helmet might work for the job, but you’ll have to buy a new one in a few years when the components wear out and can’t be replaced without retiring the entire mask from service. On top of having replaceable parts, a high-quality welding face mask will also have higher-quality parts in general that won’t need to be replaced as often. If you’ve had your helmet for many years, it’s probably about time to buy a new one.
Yes, you absolutely should. Aluminum is found in a lot of welding job situations because it’s found in a lot of different alloys. If you’re working with nickel-chromium, copper, zinc, steel, magnesium, brass, or other filler materials, there’s probably aluminum involved. Welding aluminum produces aluminum fumes that can irritate the respiratory system. However, this irritation is reduced or mitigated if you’re wearing a respirator suited to the job. In any situation where you think you’re going to be breathing something hazardous, a respirator at minimum is a good idea. A powered air purifying respirator (PAPR) is also recommended for situations involving aluminum fumes; some situations might call for HEPA filters or supplied air or powered respirators. Know your industry, job, and worksite before doing anything hazardous.
It’s certainly a good idea to have one underneath your welding hood. You should try for other controls to mitigate the risk of fumes first—adequately ventilating the space is a good place to start, as are precautions like substituting materials where reasonable or appropriate—but if other controls don’t lower the fumes to acceptable levels, then PPE, including respirators appropriate for the job, should be provided (and it’s a good idea to wear a respirator anyway—you can’t be too careful when it comes to metal fumes). The specific respirator you use will depend on the type of welding you’re doing and what metals you’re working with. Make sure that you get a respirator that works with your other PPE as well—you don’t want any piece of your equipment to be less protective because it doesn’t work well with the other pieces. Reusable respirators are also a good idea if you can get the cartridges and filters that protect against relevant hazards: with proper care, your reusable respirators will last for years and only need new filters when the old ones stop being as effective. It’s easier to be safer now than it was a few years ago thanks to technology that allows individual respirator components to be replaced, so there really isn’t a good reason to not use one.
Like with any other job, choose your welding mask based on the hazards you’re likely to face on the job. When it comes to respiratory protection, you’ll need to consider what you’re likely to be breathing in, both because of the welding and the job site itself. Will metal fumes be present alongside lead, radioactivity, oil-containing mists, or other hazards? Will there be electrical arcs, which require stronger face protection as well? Are you doing fabrication or out-of-position work, or any kind of work that might require more sensors? How sensitive do you need the welding filter to be to light? How large of a viewing area do you need—will you need a smaller and more focused one or a wider area?
The fumes that are produced by welding iron or steel can often be blocked by N95 masks. You can use one that has an exhalation valve to stay cool in warm places. However, anything more complicated than simple welding requires more sophisticated respiratory protection—and the options can be overwhelming. Getting help from safety experts like those at PK Safety can be a big help toward narrowing down your choices, but consider all of your job hazards. What kind of conditions are you working under? What sort of metals are you welding? What other chemicals will be around (whether they’re on the materials being welded or in the air around you)?
N100 masks have the highest NIOSH filter efficiency rating in a mask and can be used with metal fumes, in lead abatement, in some areas with radioactive material particulates, and in non-oil-containing mists. Arc welding requires face shields that are much more restrictive in terms of the respiratory protection that you can use, and many welders in that situation choose P100 filters to absorb the fumes and vapors and block the particles from welding. Welding helmets with powered air respirators and airline respirators can also be used for some workplaces—it all depends on your worksite and job.
No matter what mask you choose, you shouldn’t try welding with respiratory protection alone: complete face protection and eye protection is required for welding safety because of the various hazards encountered as part of the job, especially if you’re welding more than just iron or steel. FR or arc flash clothing appropriate to your application is a must as well.
Think about comfort and compatibility as well: the face shields that you’ll wear to keep your eyes safe from infrared radiation and your face safe from welding hazards will restrict the types of respirators, cartridges, and filters you can use. Some welding helmets incorporate powered air respirators along with eye, face, and head protection, but these can be costly. Airline respirators might not be the best fit for all worksites, but research whether they might be a good option for yours.