The quality of the air we breathe is among the most precious of safety concerns on a work site.

Respiratory hazards, including oxygen-deficient atmospheres and airborne contaminants like dusts, mists, gases, and fumes, pose a great threat to workers (learn some of the risks in Reducing Silica Exposure in Manufacturing). Inhaling dangerous substances can lead to illness, injuries, lost work time, and more.

Respiratory Protection

When protection is required, employers must provide NIOSH-certified respirators to their workers.

Respirators are an effective defense against dusts, mists, gases, and fumes, and protect workers by filtering hazardous particles from the air, purifying the air, or supplying clean air from an outside source. Since they provide such a vital function, they’re one of the most important pieces of a worker’s personal protective equipment.

Please note that selecting the proper respirator requires an assessment by experienced, qualified safety personnel of all the workplace operations or environments that may create a respiratory hazard.

Respirator Categories: Choosing the Right One

Respirators fall into the following categories.

Particulate Respirators

Particulate respirators protect only against dust, particles, fumes, and mists. They don’t protect against chemicals, gases, or vapors; therefore, they are to be used for low hazard conditions only. Generally, these respirators are disposable masks or they incorporate the use of disposable filters.

Chemical Cartridge / Gas Mask Respirators

Chemical cartridge and gas mask respirators (also known as air-purifying respirators) filter or clean chemical gases out of the air as the wearer breathes. They are comprised of a facepiece or mask and a cartridge or canister. There are numerous cartridges and canisters to choose from; therefore, it’s imperative to know what hazards exist to get the proper protection (find out what kind of cartridge you should use). These respirators can also incorporate additional filters to remove particles.

It’s important to note that while there are cartridges, canisters, and filters that protect against more than one hazard, there isn’t one that protects against all hazards.

Powered Air-Purifying Respirator (PAPR)

Powered air-purifying respirators use a fan to draw air in to the wearer through a filter. This makes it easier to breathe through them. They rely on a battery for power and use the same types of cartridges, canisters, and filters as air-purifying respirators.

Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA)

A self-contained breathing apparatus provides the highest level of respiratory protection. It protects against higher concentrations of dangerous chemicals by supplying air to the user via a tank, so filters, cartridges, and canisters aren’t necessary.

These units are very heavy, weighing thirty pounds or more. The air tanks generally last an hour or less, depending on their individual rating and the breathing rate of the user. These respirators also require more specialized training on their use and maintenance.

Additional Protective Equipment

For some intricately hazardous applications, personal protective equipment isn’t limited to a respirator. A totally encapsulated chemical protective suit, for example, may be required to protect a worker from direct contact with potentially hazardous gaseous or liquid chemicals. These suits are full body garments that cover the head, torso, arms, legs, and respirator. They may also have built-in gloves and boots; or alternatively, gloves and boots will be tightly attached to the suit.

Getting a Good Fit

Using a respirator that fits properly is also imperative to worker safety. A fit test tests the seal between a tight-fitting respirator’s facepiece and the worker’s face, and should be performed at least annually by qualified safety personnel. This testing determines the best make, model, style, and size of respirator for each worker.

In addition, a user seal test – a quick check performed by the wearer each time the respirator is put on – must be performed. This test determines whether the respirator is properly sealed to the face or needs to be readjusted.

It’s important to note that anything that comes between the respirator’s seal and the worker’s face can allow contaminated air to leak into the facepiece and disrupt the protection. Facial hair, like a beard or mustache, or straying long hair can diminish the effectiveness of a respirator.

Conclusion

Choosing the right respiratory protection keeps workers safer, minimizes injuries, and increases comfort and productivity. With many advances in respirator manufacturing, it’s easier than ever to find just what you and your team needs.