The purpose of respiratory protection programs is to prevent occupational diseases and injuries (cancer, lung impairment, asphyxiation, etc.) that can be caused by work environments with insufficient oxygen or with air containing harmful dust, fogs, fumes, mists, gases, smoke, sprays or vapors.
When employees work in these environments safety professionals must first design a plan and establish engineering and administrative controls to protect their health and safety. However, if the controls cannot reduce or eliminate the hazards from the air that the workers breathe, appropriate respiratory protection must be provided to all workers exposed to the hazards.
OSHA and NIOSH regulations provide companies with fundamental guidelines to follow. These include a written plan with worksite-specific procedures (including the use of engineering controls), hazard assessment, respirator selection, employee training, fit testing, medical evaluation, and respirator use, cleaning, maintenance and repair.
Whenever employees are required to wear respirators, workplaces must have a complete respiratory protection program with operating procedures in place to ensure that the respirators are used safely and according to instructions.
EHS professionals must perform a complete assessment of respiratory hazards in the workplace and establish procedures (such as engineering controls and work practices) aimed to limit employee exposure to these hazards. Only after these procedures are established (or if their use is not possible) can the right equipment be chosen. If the atmosphere is deemed immediately dangerous to life or health—the atmosphere poses a threat to life, would cause irreversible negative health effects or would impair a person’s ability to escape—respirator use is imperative.
If, after a hazard assessment, the workplace is found not to contain hazardous exposures but your workers choose to use respirators (such as a filtering facepiece or traditional facepiece) voluntarily, certain relevant elements may need to be included in the written program. This is to prevent hazards associated with the respirator as it, in itself, might pose a hazard.
Selecting the right protection
There are many things to take into account when choosing the right respirator. Will it be tight-fitting or loose-fitting? Air-purifying or atmosphere supplying? Among other issues, consider:
- the amount of oxygen present in the working area;
- the contaminants and their chemical and physical properties as well as their toxicity and concentration;
- the job requirements to ensure worker mobility and their ability to see, hear and communicate;
- if the respirators are approved by NIOSH for the contaminant against which they’re going to be used;
- the type of job and situation in which the respirator will be used;
- the amount of time workers need to perform their jobs—the air-purifying respirator (just like the self-contained breathing apparatus, SCBA) only offers protection for a set and rather short amount of time. But a respirator using an air-line and an air compressor can be used for a long time;
- if the job is stressful or physically demanding—supplied-air respirators (SARs) require the right air-supply rate, because the volume of air breathed per minute can change quickly and significantly depending on the work that is being performed or on the wearer’s state of mind.
Employees must be physically able to perform their work while using a respirator. This is why it’s important for a medical evaluation to take place. The evaluation must be performed before the worker is fit tested and starts using the respirator. A written recommendation from a licensed healthcare professional is required for each employee.
Not all respirators will fit everyone. This is why fit testing and providing a sufficient number of different models and sizes is vital. Consider all the factors that affect the fit, including the workers’ size, facial hair, glasses, dentures, jewelry and injuries.
When deciding to use tight-fitting facepiece respirators, it’s important to test their effectiveness qualitatively or quantitatively. The former requires using harmless substances in the area and checking if the wearer can smell or detect the substance inside their respirator. The latter involves the use of a fit testing instrument that measures the amount of leakage into the respirator.
Employers should conduct a training program that covers respiratory hazards, hazard recognition, and the use and care of respiratory equipment (including the basics like putting on, removing and checking the seals). Workers need to understand how improper fit, usage or maintenance can compromise the equipment. They should also know the reasons why a particular model was selected for them as well as its capabilities and limitations.
Respirator safety training should cover emergencies such as a respirator malfunctioning and how to recognize symptoms of medical issues that might prevent the effective use of a respirator. Training should also educate people on the fact that improper respirator use may cause exposure that can lead to chronic disease or death.
Proper use and cleaning/maintenance
Employees and safety professionals must follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for proper use and maintenance of respirators. These can include anything from the proper storage and cleaning methods to performing repairs. It’s also necessary to ensure that the air supplied to the respirator meets Grade D standards (ANSI/Compressed Gas Association Commodity for Air, G-7.1-1989) and that CO (carbon monoxide) monitors are installed in oil-lubricated compressors. When in doubt, check with the manufacturer or research the standards.
Record keeping and program evaluation
Safety managers are required to keep records as part of a written respiratory protection program. Medical evaluations, fit testing, respirator inspections and the rest of the program need an organized approach that is documented in clear and transparent records.
In addition, safety leaders must evaluate the program regularly and update or change it when necessary. It’s a good idea to form a worker-management team to effectively and jointly conduct these evaluations and update the program. This would aid in making the program more relevant to the people who actually wear the respirators and it would also contribute to the culture of safety by making employees feel included in the actions and decisions that affect their safety.
Working in hazardous environments is a tough job and worrying about safety should not be a part of it. Providing reliable respirators can help alleviate this worry. But everyone must remember that respirators don’t eliminate the hazards and if a respirator fails, the worker will be exposed to hazardous, and sometimes deadly, substances. A respirator protection plan prepares everyone not only for everyday hazards but for unexpected ones as well.