Many hazardous substances can become airborne, making them respiratory health hazards. In fact, inhalation is the most common route of exposure for many materials that are considered to be health hazards. According to the United States Department of Labour, in the U.S. alone, more than 66,000 workers suffer from severe exposure to airborne contaminants each year - despite the fact that an estimated 5 million workers are required to wear respirators in 1.3 million workplaces! Therefore, it is important for you to know what you can do to protect yourself, especially when it relates to choosing your respiratory protection device.

Why is Respiratory Protection Important?

Inhaling hazardous substances can cause damage to the delicate structures of your lungs. When your lungs become damaged, your risk for respiratory diseases increases. In most cases, respiratory diseases are incurable and often results in death. The most common respiratory illnesses are cancers of the lungs.

Respiratory Protection Devices

A respiratory protection device, also known as a respirator, is an article of personal protective equipment (PPE) designed to prevent a worker from inhaling contaminated air. It functions by either covering the nose and mouth, or the entire face or head to protect the worker against hazardous airbone substances. There are two main types of respirators: air-purifying respirators and air-supplied resiprators.

Choosing Your Respirator

Selecting the right respirator is an important process involving various factors. There are six factors you should always consider when choosing a respiratory protection device:

  1. The level of the hazard you are exposed to. This is the most important factor to consider. You will need to know:

    • What type of contaminant you must be protected against

    • The form of the contaminant

    • How toxic the contaminant is

    • The concentraction of the contaminant

    • Your duration of exposure to the contaminant

    • Your individual sensitivity to the contaminant

  2. The type of material that the respirator is made of. Respirators are currently being made from a wide range of materials. Therefore, your choice should be influenced by the type of chemical contaminant you are exposed to, as well as the resistance of the respirator's material to the chemical.

  3. The weight of the respirator. The heavier the respirator, the quicker you are likely to become fatigued. The longer the respirator has to be worn for, the lighter it should be.

  4. How comfortable the respirator is. Comfort is a factor which is often overlooked when choosing respirators. If a respirator is not comfortable, it is least likely to be worn for the duration of the job it is intended for. Additionally, you need to consider what your individual requirements are. Do you wear glasses? Will you have to wear other protective equipment when using your respirator?

  5. Donning, fit testing and proper use. Be sure you know how to don and use the respirator properly. If you need assistance, ask your supervisor or a safety professional. Additionally, fit test your respirator to ensure that there is an airtight seal between your face and the respirator. (For more information on fit testing check out: Qualitative Fit Testing and Quantitative Fit Testing).

  6. Care, storage and maintenance. Be sure you know how to care for, store and maintain yor respirator. For instance you should know how to inspect and clean your respirator after every use. Therefore, when purchasing a respirator, you should always read the manufacturer's instructions and manuals to ensure your understand what actions you need to take.

Respiratory Protection Program

Another important element of respiratory protection is implementing a respiratory protection program. It is your employer's responsibility to do so. Employers should ensure that their respiratory protection program incorporates the following elements:

  • Ensuring that workers are able to wear respiratory protection devices

  • Providing cleaning and storing facilities

  • Inspecting respiratory protection devices regularly for defects

  • Training workers

  • Keeping records of maintenance

Due to the nature of respiratory health hazards, it is difficult to 'see' them. Never assume they are not there. Compliance is better than a cure, especially as it relates to respiratory protection, as most respiratory diseases are incurable. So the next time you go shopping for a respirator, be sure to consider these six factors.