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Respiratory Protection Equipment (RPE)

Last updated: September 2, 2019

What Does Respiratory Protection Equipment (RPE) Mean?

Respiratory protection equipment (RPE) is a type of personal protective equipment (PPE) that prevents the wearer from inhaling dangerous substances such as particulates, vapors, and gases.

The equipment works by filtering particles out of the air, by purifying the air through the removal of hazardous chemicals via a chemical reaction, or by providing workers with an external clean air source. In addition to protecting workers from dangerous substances, the latter type of RPE is used in situations where workers must operate in an oxygen-deficient environment or one that may become oxygen deficient.

Safeopedia Explains Respiratory Protection Equipment (RPE)

RPE is one of the most commonly utilized forms of PPE in worksites. Although it is ideal to use engineering and other hazard controls to remove respirable hazards from a working environment, many worksites (such as construction and other industrial sites) involve activities in which hazardous dusts, fumes, gases, and other substances are created as part of the ordinary course of work activities.

The use of RPE to protect workers from harm is mandated under various occupational health and safety standards put forth by every advanced country in the world. In the United States, OSHA standard 1910.134 provides employers with specific obligations for the use of RPE. As a form of PPE, it must be provided to workers free of cost. Typically, the respirator provided must be certified by a recognized governmental or non-governmental agency, such as NIOSH.

RPE can be categorized into four broad categories:

  • Particulate-filtering respirators provide a physical barrier between particles and the mouth. They include disposable dust masks, the simplest form of RPE, which usually look like flexible white pads that have been formed to fit around the mouth and nose.
  • Chemical cartridge/gas mask respirators use chemical cartridges to purify hazardous chemicals by causing them to undergo a chemical reaction. Cartridges are coded by colors that indicate what class of chemicals they can effectively filter. Cartridges must be selected based on their compatibility with the specific hazards present in the workplace.
  • Powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs) are similar to chemical cartridge respirators but are designed with a fan that moves air through the filter. PAPRs are easier to breathe through than normal cartridge and filtering masks, but they require a power source to work effectively.
  • Self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBAs) are fully contained breathing systems that provide the wearer with an external source of oxygen. While other masks rely on a full or half-face mask, SCBAs can also include helmets or hoods that fully encapsulate the head, such as those used in HAZMAT suits. Some SCBAs may be supplemented with cartridge masks in case the external air supply stops working.

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