Of all the different types of personal protective equipment (PPE) out there, respiratory protection may be the most diverse in terms of products. Part of the reason for that is the scope of occupations that are vulnerable to oxygen shortage or dangerous gases, such as construction, cement plants, the food industry, pharmaceuticals, firefighting, oil and gas and many others. This means that respiratory products can come in different forms, from the self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBA) used by firefighters to ordinary N95 face masks designed to protect against dust.
It’s important to use respiratory protection “anytime you can ingest or inhale any kind of a substance that could be harmful to your health,” according to John Greer, president and COO of Dynamic Safety International in Laval, Quebec. That can mean anything from dangerous gases in confined spaces to the dust of cement or the powders used in pharmaceuticals and food services. But how can you make sure that your respirator is working properly?
“The most important thing is comfort and fit,” Greer adds. “Fit and comfort is everything. Because if you don’t get a good fit and you get leakage, you’re going to be breathing in what you shouldn’t be breathing in.” So it’s always vital to get fit-tested for the masks you’re using. It’s also useful to double-check the fit by putting your hand over the exhalation valve and blowing, to make sure that the seal is tight, he says.
Greer also notes that a dirty dust mask is not necessarily one that doesn’t work. In fact, dirt can often serve as an additional filter. “Really, the dirtier they get, actually, the better they function,” he says. It’s better to wait until a mask is unsanitary or hard to breathe through before replacing it.
According to Dennis Capizzi, outbound product-line manager for respiratory protection and thermal imaging cameras with MSA in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, an employer should instill environmental controls at a workplace before considering respiratory products — “to eliminate or reduce the contaminants within the environment for the worker,” he explains.
“Should they not be able to implement an environmental control,” adds Capizzi, “then they bring in a respiratory-protection program, which will reduce the level of the contaminants to below the operator’s exposure limit.”
Once that protection program is established, employees need full training on how to use the equipment properly — and on how to maintain it. “You have to set up, within that training module, an inspection guideline,” says Capizzi. A proper cleaning regiment should be in place, one that includes wiping down all equipment and making sure that all contaminants are gone, as well as replacing cartridges regularly if the respirators use them.
How long a cartridge lasts tends to depend on the product itself, with factors like humidity, altitude, work rate and the contaminants from which the respirator is protecting the worker. Whatever the answer, an employer should establish a plan for replacing cartridges on a regular basis, Capizzi advises.
MSA, a top PPE manufacturer in North America, specializes in all kinds of workplace respiratory protection, from SCBAs to air-purifying respirators, to N95 masks that are easily available in retail. “Anything you go into, we have a respiratory solution for you,” says Capizzi.
Different shapes and sizes
Among the many types of respiratory products available, N95 masks are the most common; they are primarily useful for work environments where dry dust is a breathing hazard, as well as for construction and cement work. Less popular is the P95, which welders tend to use to protect themselves from oil particles in fumes, and the RP1000, which is effective mainly against mild dust, but is now considered obsolete for protection against bigger impurity threats.
“If you go back in the ’70s, people were using those for paint-spraying, and they’re probably dead now. But we’ve learned a lot,” says Greer about the RP1000. These days, the product is used mainly in the food industry, he adds.
Meanwhile, SCBAs are larger air-line systems that include air tanks connected to full-face masks or hoods. This equipment is intended mainly for confined spaces where smaller masks are far less effective.
“The worst thing in confined spaces is some sort of gases,” notes Greer. “Quite often, down in a confined space can be some very nasty gases, and those gases can actually kill you. And a dust mask is not going to filter out that kind of stuff.”
In addition, dust masks are available with and without exhalation valves; those without valves are typically cheaper, but they make the user breathe hot moist air back out through the material, which gets the mask soggy. “Say you have to go out for 10 minutes to do a dusty, dirty job, a non-valve mask is fine,” says Greer. “But if you had to do the job for eight hours a day, you definitely want a valve.”
Because different workers out there have different face sizes and comfort levels, it is rare that an employer will need to purchase only one style of respiratory protection. That is why different options have to be considered, in order to maximize protection for everybody.
Whatever type of respiratory protection a workplace uses, it is important to follow official PPE standards for use and maintenance. In Canada, CSA Group offers Z94.4: Selection, Use and Care of Respirators, which provides best-practice recommendations on product selection criteria, respiratory protection programs, regulatory guidelines and manufacturer information.
But there are respirator manufacturers and sellers in Canada who prefer to go by the American standards, offered by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Washington, D.C. “CSA does not test respirators,” claims Greer, adding that NIOSH has a government laboratory facility to test respiratory products. He still recommends the CSA standards for fall-arrest gear, head protection, safety boots and other PPE.
No matter what the job or the task, all people have to keep breathing, all the time. It is up to the employer to make sure that workers are equipped so that every breath they take is a safe one.
Jeff Cottrill is the editor of Canadian Occupational Health and Safety News.