Respirators protect workers from many long-term illnesses associated with insufficient oxygen levels that are caused by environmental triggers, such as hazardous gases, fogs, dusts, smokes, mists, gases, and sprays. However, respirators are ineffective if not worn properly, so it is crucial to know how respirators work, when they are necessary in a work situation, and what type of criteria to adhere to when implementing, regulating, or enforcing a respiratory policy.

How a Respirator Works

By creating a seal between the mask and the face, there are two ways in which a respirator functions:

  1. Particle respirators and air-purifying respirators remove airborne contaminants and poisons by using a filtration process through a cartridge or canister attachment.
  2. Atmosphere-supplying respirators provide clean air from either a remote or self-contained source. Examples include an airline respirator or a SCUBA tank.

How to Determine If a Respirator Is Necessary in a Given Workplace

According to the United States Department of Labor, roughly 5 million workers are required to wear respirators in over 1 million U.S. workspaces. But how do you determine if your workplace should be using respirators, too? There are a few ways to define this, including:

Personal Exposure Monitoring – Using a sampling methodology, this is the most reliable approach for assessing how much and what type of respiratory protection may be necessary in a given workplace, as this identifies the exact circumstances per employee.

Data Aggregation & Interpretation – When management seeks to protect employees from respiratory hazards when handling products and materials, objective information is always valuable. When evaluating data, the following should be considered:

  • To estimate the maximum exposure that could be anticipated in a workspace, management can look to assess any detected physical and/or chemical properties of air contaminants against room dimensions, air exchange rates, contaminant release rates, as well as exposure patters versus work practices.
  • Data from industry-wide experts (including surveys) and the information that trade associations compile can be leveraged. An example of an appropriate organization would be the International Safety Equipment Association.  Stewardship programs managed by manufacturers are also often useful in assisting small business owners and employees, too.
  • Be aware that there is a potential for variation in exposure data that is collected, and therefore you should have a strategy to account for this, unless, of course, you are evaluating for the highest levels of exposure possible. Remember to account for uneven dispersion of contaminants and employee proximities to contaminant sources.

 Addressing Respiratory Policy in the Workplace

 After determining if respirators are necessary in the workplace, it is also important to know the protocol for implementing, regulating, and enforcing a respirator policy. This protocol is divided into a few compulsory categories, including:

Written Program – A written program must be composed to cover respirator topics on selection, medical fitness, maintenance, training, and fit testing. The supplier of a respirator can provide the technical assistance needed. *

*NARFA’s Safety and Health Manual Template also contains a written policy that can be adapted to meet these requirements.

Medical Fitness – Employees cannot simply put on a respirator, they must be medically cleared to do so. This is significant because respirators typically place a burden on the person wearing them, so a physician or licensed healthcare professional is needed to evaluate an employee’s condition.

Fit Testing – The most important factor in wearing a respirator is that the apparatus fits properly, meaning there is a seal between the mask and the face. This must be checked annually with qualitative (sensation based, i.e., taste, irritation, smell) and quantitative (instrument based, i.e., measuring leakage between the face and apparatus) methods. Acceptable fits are determined by the relative exposure as identified in an air quality test.

 Maintenance & Cleaning Requirements – A regular cleaning and maintenance schedule is necessary to ensure that respirators are in proper working condition. Regular inspections before each use is recommended, but there are also mandatory cleaning requirements, as outlined by OSHA. To view these standards, under OSHA Standard CFR 1910.134 Appendix B-2, click here.

Voluntary Application – It is not always compulsory to wear a respirator. In circumstances where OSHA Standards do not require a respirator to be worn by employees, but employees wish to wear an apparatus anyway, remember that management must implement some provisions for a respiratory program. Employees choosing to wear a respirator with a filtering face piece must provide a copy of CFR 1910. Appendix D., and for all other volunteer users, an additional written respirator program – covering medical fitness and maintenance requirements – must be executed by management.

Remember that wearing the proper respirator in proper working condition in environments where air quality is compromised can have a tremendous impact on your future health. Many of the tips in respiratory safety article were compiled from the International Safety Equipment Association, as well as from OSHA and the United States Department of Labor.

For more helpful information and safety tips from NARFA, please visit our Health & Wellness page.


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