Many industrial workplaces have hazardous atmospheres that can seriously affect the respiratory health of its workers. Because of this, millions of workers use respirators on a regular basis.

Respirators are a specialized kind of personal protective equipment (PPE) designed to protect workers from hazardous atmospheres. They're essential to keeping workers safe, but they're not the only element of an effective respiratory protection program.

(Learn more about The Basic Types of Respirators – And How to Select the Right One for Your Workplace.)

Employers should have a written respiratory protection program that outlines each of the necessary components. This includes:

  • Hazard identification and control
  • Exposure assessment
  • Medical evaluation
  • Respirator selection
  • Respirator fit testing
  • Training
  • Inspection and record keeping
  • Cleaning, repairs, and maintenance

Together, these key components can protect your workers from serious respiratory health hazards.

Let's take a closer look at what each of them involve.

Hazard Identification and Control

Employers must evaluate and identify the specific respiratory health hazards found in their workplace.

The evaluation should include an estimate of the employee exposure levels. This typically involves laboratory testing and industrial hygiene consultations.

Essentially, the contaminants chemical state and physical form must be identified, and the amount of exposure must be understood. Then, the employer can develop an exposure control plan.

Exposure Assessment

The exposure assessment involves understanding the concentration of the contaminant that an employee would be exposed to if not wearing a respirator.

OSHA has defined the amount to which an employee can be safely exposed without short-term or long-term effects. These levels are known as permissible exposure limits, or PELs. The levels are different for each type of contaminant. More information on these can be found here.

(Learn 5 Essential Exposure Limit Terms Worth Knowing.)

Medical Evaluation

Using a respirator may place a physiological burden on employees who have certain medical conditions. Therefore, employers must evaluate the health status of their employees before requiring them to use respirators in the workplace.

Medical evaluations consist of:

  • Administering a medical questionnaire or an initial medical examination
  • Having a licensed health care professional (PLHCP) review the questionnaire or perform the initial medical evaluations
  • Allowing a follow-up examination for employees whose questionnaire or initial medical examination demonstrates the need for a further evaluation
  • Obtaining a written recommendation from a PLHCP regarding the employee's ability to use respirators

Medical evaluations must be completed before an employee receives and uses a respirator.

Respirator Selection

Employers must select and provide appropriate respirators based on the specific hazards found in their workplace. This means that they must be appropriate for the chemical state and physical form of the contaminants.

For example, certain respirators will filter out dust particles but are ineffective against gases and vapors. Make sure you understand the difference when choosing a respirator.

Regardless of which style you choose, all respirators must be NIOSH-certified.

And finally, a sufficient number of models and sizes must be provided to ensure a proper and comfortable fit for every employee.

Respirator Fit Testing

A fit test is a way to determine the fit and effectiveness of a respirator. There are two ways to conduct this test: qualitative and quantitative fit testing.

Qualitative Fit Testing

Qualitative testing is a pass/fail test that relies on the user's sense of taste and smell to determine if there is any leakage into the respirator facepiece.

A harmless but irritating substance is administered near the breathing zone and workers notify the test administrator if they can detect it.

The substances used most frequently for qualitative fit tests are:

  • Bitrex (a liquid spray that tastes bitter)
  • Saccharine (a liquid spray that tastes sweet)
  • Irritant smoke (causes an employee to cough)
  • Isoamyl Acetate (a liquid spray that smells like bananas)

Quantitative Fit Testing

Quantitative testing uses a fit-test machine to measure the amount of contaminants in the ambient air compared to the amount found inside the respirator itself.

This is the preferred method of fit testing, since it provides an actual measurement and does not rely on the employee's sense of taste or smell.

Fit testing must be conducted at least annually for all employees that use respirators.

(Find out How to Complete a Respirator Fit Test.)

Training

Workers must be trained on the respiratory hazards to which they may be exposed. They must also be trained on proper respirator use, putting them on and taking them off, and how to clean and maintain their respirators.

Training must take place at least annually.

OSHA regulations require the following to be covered during training:

  • Why the respirator is necessary
  • How improper fit, usage, or maintenance can compromise the protective effect of the respirator
  • The limitations and capabilities of the respirator
  • How to use the respirator effectively in emergency situations, including situations in which the respirator malfunctions
  • How to inspect, put on and remove, use, and check the seals of the respirator
  • The maintenance and storage procedures for the respirator
  • How to recognize medical signs and symptoms that may limit or prevent the effective use of respirators

It's usually a good idea to conduct annual training at the same time as you perform respirator fit testing for your employees.

Record Keeping

Employers must maintain written records of employee medical evaluations, fit test results, and the respiratory protection program.

Medical evaluations must be maintained for at least the duration of employment. Fit test results must be kept on file until a new test is performed.

Cleaning, Repairs, and Maintenance

Employers must provide workers with a respirator that is clean, sanitary, and in good working condition.

Additionally, the following maintenance criteria must be followed:

  • Respirators must be cleaned and disinfected regularly
  • Respirators must be stored in a manner that protects them from dust, damage, and deformation
  • Respirators must be stored in a clean, safe, and dry environment
  • Employees must inspect their respirators before each use and during cleaning
  • Employers must establish a procedure for reporting damage, conducting repairs, and receiving replacements

Respiratory Health Protection

It's important to remember that respirators should not be the first and only choice for protecting workers from respiratory health hazards. They should only be used when other parts of the hierarchy of controls cannot be effectively followed.

It's always best to eliminate, substitute, or engineer out the hazard. Respirators and other forms of PPE should be used when such efforts are unable to create a safe work environment.

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