Case Study: Beating the Heat (and Humidity)

In both summer and winter, steamed-up safety glasses and helmet lenses are problems in most welding environments, but solutions are available.

We know the right helmet can prevent injuries and even can save lives. Football players, motorcyclists, miners, and construction workers can attest to that. But can a helmet make you more productive and a "better" welder? When you think about improving weld quality, you usually consider power sources, wire feeders, parameters and weld positions, and perhaps the type and brand of wire and other consumables -- but helmets?

Valmont Industries, a worldwide leader in the fabrication of structural and transmission towers used by municipalities, utilities, communication companies, and irrigation professionals, has 95 facilities worldwide, including in Tulsa, Okla. Outside temperatures in the summer regularly reach triple digits in Tulsa, and temperatures inside the plant can reach as high as 110 degrees. Noting the effects that heat stress was having on his crew of 100 welding operators, Valmont Operations Director Tony Schuler worked with Bobby Goodman of Best Welders Supply to identify a solution to keep the staff cool.

The company decided to trial a headgear-integrated cooling system. The result: cooler, more comfortable welders who are able to get more work done in the same amount of time because there is substantially less fatigue, and they spend less time wiping sweat and defogging glasses and lenses.

"In the summertime, our welders are working in 100-degree and higher temperatures, so we are always looking for ways to move air and keep our employees cooler. This system looked like the smallest and lightest weight, so we were interested in trying it out. We tested it for three months on one of our welders and were very pleased with all the additional benefits we received. We decided to go full-blown and offer those to all the welders and fitters that we have out there on the shop floor," Schuler said.

The technology is a cooling system that is inserted inside a welding helmet, runs on a rechargeable battery, and comprises strategically located air vents. The unit provides downward air vents with constant air movement over a welder's face and temples. Upward air vents provide air movement over a welder's entire head. This air movement can lower the temperature inside a welding helmet by 8 degrees.

"Our welders flip their hood down, flip that blower on, and air is forced over their face. It simply decreases their sweat," Schuler said. "We're in 105-degree heat; we don't set a break time. If a welder needs to stop and cool off, they just do it as needed. Before, our operators had to stop continuously, lift their hoods, and wipe the sweat off their faces and out of their eyes. Many times, they'd have to splash cold water on their faces, too."

All of that stopping takes time and slows production. Although Valmont was simply looking to make the operators more comfortable, it has reaped the benefits of a more productive welding operation. "The main thing I notice is the heat," said Brian Mears, a welder at Valmont. "This keeps the heat out of my face. I can take the heat anywhere else, I just don't want it in my face. In this job there's a lot of lifting, going from seam to seam, weld to weld -- and I used to have to stop and wipe my face off and clean my glasses and lens. Now, I don't have that problem. It's gone."

Productivity Gains
In both summer and winter, foggy, steamed-up safety glasses and helmet lenses are problems in most welding environments. Wearing a helmet with safety glasses -- an often-overlooked regulation -- makes for a tight environment with humid air. The headgear-integrated cooling system virtually eliminates fogged-up lenses and glasses, making operators much more effective and productive.

"We weld a lot of long poles that have a bunch of clips on them. We can do this so much faster now because we don't have to stop, pick up our hood, wipe off our glasses, and then move on. Now we can do a lot more in a row without stopping," Mears said.

Some of Valmont's concerns about using helmet cooling systems were that they would run out of battery life too quickly and weigh too much. The product has a compact and sleek look and a comfortable fit that balances evenly on the head and adds just 13 ounces of weight. It also has a battery life of up to six hours, which is more than enough time considering most welders won't spend that much time under a hood during a shift.

"The battery really does last as long as they say it will," said Mears. "I usually charge mine while I'm eating lunch because we work eight-to-10-hour shifts, and although that's not all arc-on time, I don't want it to run out on me."

In addition to providing the cooling technology, Valmont offered its welding operators new auto-darkening welding helmets to go along with the system. These helmets are considerably lighter and provide much better balance than many of their previous helmets.

"My neck used to hurt from the weight of the helmet, and I used to get headaches," Mears said. "You see, when your hood is heavy, you need to really tighten up the band because you don't want it to fall -- this gave me headaches. But I don't have to do that any more because this helmet is so much lighter. I also really like the auto-darkening aspect. I can keep my hood down when I move from weld to weld. Also, because we weld in such close proximity to each other, I don't get arc flash from the welders on either side of me, now that I can keep the helmet down. This new helmet is one of the most balanced hoods I've tried. Even when you tilt your head, it doesn't fall. It doesn't drop unless you want it to. It's smooth and not awkward and cumbersome like most hoods."

Although this location presents an extremely warm environment for welding, Valmont works hard to make its employees as comfortable as possible. The company considers every option to minimize heat stress because safety is paramount. "We've had a very hot summer, and we haven't had any heat-related incidents since we switched to our new helmet system," Schuler said. "That reason right there more than pays for the investment."

For companies that haven't considered cooling systems as a welding productivity issue, Mears has some useful information. With his old helmet, he raised and lowered his hood hundreds of times per day to wipe sweat from his forehead and fog from his glasses, he said, but the new helmet has decreased that activity by 60 to 65 percent. He said he believes a job that used to take him two hours with his old helmet now takes him one hour and 40 minutes. With that type of productivity increase, apparently the right helmet can indeed make you a better welder.

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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