Most of us take breathing for granted. But the simple, instinctive act of respiration may be threatened in work environments where hazardous dust, fumes, gases or vapours may be contaminating the air.
Jobs that require respirators include refineries, pulp and paper mills, manufacturing, mining and construction. Firefighters often use self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBAs) on the job, with full-face masks connected to air tanks on their backs. Even healthcare workers may use respirators to protect themselves from bio-aerosols, and the pharmaceutical and food industries are also common users of these products.
Among the most common types is the N95 disposable respirator, which offers protection against certain particulates in environments that do not contain oil mists. According to Claudio Dente, the president of Dentec Safety Specialists, which manufactures all kinds of respiratory products in Newmarket, Ontario, people like disposable respirators because they are convenient to use. “They are lighter-weight, they are less expensive, and people find them somewhat more comfortable.”
Other types of filters, like the P95, are designed to protect against certain particulates, but in environments where oil mists may be present. This type of protection is available with disposable models or reusable face pieces, and cartridges can be added to reusable respirators for protection against certain gases and vapours.
A reusable respirator can last as long as three to five years if the user maintains it properly, according to Manish Gupta, respiratory specialist with 3M in Toronto. “I have seen people who don’t look after their respirators while working in dirty environments where the respirator is garbage after literally a few weeks or a month,” he says, pointing out a common myth that a user can continue to use the same cartridge until it is completely blocked. “Ideally, you should be changing those at least every shift.”
Although price should never be the only consideration when deciding what kind of respirators to purchase, every employer has a budget. The goal is to identify and evaluate the hazards adequately and select the appropriate respirator that meets the requirements of a facility’s respiratory-protection program.
The first factor that a prospective buyer should consider is the specific contaminant or chemical from which the workers need protection, as well as how much of it is present in the workplace. Different types of respirators provide different levels of protection, so one should select the appropriate level based on the amount of contaminant present and the occupational exposure limit. Some companies may choose to hire a consultant to take air samples from the workspace and send them to a laboratory for analysis.
It is also important to check that the respirator is compatible with other types of personal protective equipment (PPE), like safety glasses or hardhats. A third key consideration in respirator selection is the physical and mental challenges affecting a worker’s physical ability to wear the equipment on the job.
An adequate and comfortable fit is a vital factor in selecting respiratory protection, especially since a user might be wearing a mask for an extended period of time. Anne Osbourn, the marketing manager with MSA in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, notes that comfort, ergonomics and ease of use play critical roles in the design of respirators these days to ensure that workers are not compelled to take them off when they are most needed.
“Respirators are really only as good as how they are used, so it is critical that workers follow the proper procedures at all times,” Osbourn says. “Ergonomics can be pretty imperative to getting the job done safely.”
One of the disadvantages of the N95 is the difficulty of getting a consistent fit, according to Dente. “The critical thing about wearing any respirator is the feel to the face, and the ability to mimic or duplicate that feel every time you go into the hazardous environment,” he says. So every respirator requires a “fit test” to make sure it fits tightly onto the user’s face, along with an additional “fit check” before every use.
“When you use some type of rubber respirator,” Dente adds, “it is easier to conduct a fit check each and every time you go into the environment.” But with a different disposable respirator for each use, it is more challenging to maintain a consistent fit.
The fit test is important because it is making sure the respirator works, Gupta explains. “You might have the best respirator in the world, but if it doesn’t fit on your face properly and it is leaking, then all of a sudden, contaminants and other things are getting through, and you won’t know that.”
Just like with other kinds of PPE, users must inspect respirators regularly and according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. It is also important to make sure that there are no cracks, tears or missing parts. A respirator with a missing inhalation or exhalation valve should be removed from use until it has been repaired.
Tight-fitting respirators are designed for workers who are clean-shaven and without any other conditions that may interfere with the sealing or function of a respirator. A beard can interfere with the seal and allow contaminants to get through. Facial jewellery, like lip rings or eyebrow rings, can also compromise a mask’s performance. But Gupta says future design changes to accommodate facial hair or fashion are not out of the question.
Reducing breathing hazards in a work environment does not start with respiratory products. An employer must first determine what kinds of engineering and administrative controls can be implemented to reduce contaminants in the workspace. A formal, written respiratory-protection program — one that includes instructions on hazard assessment, selection, fit-testing and training on the equipment, among other items — is also necessary.
Whatever the task at hand, every employer must take the utmost precautions to ensure that every breath a worker takes is a safe one.
Jeff Cottrill is editorial assistant of OHS Canada.