Personal Protective Equipment

You Can’t Breathe Easy Until Your Workers Can

Because of the potentially serious health effects of airborne contaminants and other hazards, OSHA’s respiratory protection standard (29 CFR 1910.134) establishes rigorous requirements for the safe use of respirators.

Respirators protect workers from a host of workplace hazards, including insufficient oxygen, and harmful dust, fog, smoke, mists, gases, vapors, and sprays. Without this essential PPE, many workers would develop cancer, lung damage, and other debilitating diseases, some of which would prove fatal.

Selecting the Right Respirator

Safe use of respirators under the OSHA standard begins with selecting appropriate respirators based on the hazards employees face on the job. To choose the right respirators, OSHA says your organization must:

  • Conduct exposure assessments to determine the type and amount of hazardous exposure.
  • Take into account the factors that can influence respirator selection, such as a worker’s medical condition.
  • Understand the assigned protection factor (APF), which reflects the level of protection that a properly functioning respirator would be expected to provide. For example, an APF of 10 for a respirator means that a user could expect to inhale no more than one-tenth of the airborne contaminant present. You can find the APF for various types of respirators in Table 1, Paragraph (d)(3)(i)(A) of the standard.
  • Identify characteristics of different types of respirators and the level of protection they provide.

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Good Fit

Once you’ve selected the best respirators to protect against hazards, the next step is assuring a good fit. Faces are different, so one size doesn’t fit all.

To check the fit, have employees don their respirators and stand in front of a mirror as you point out the criteria for proper fit:

  • The chin should fit properly into the respirator.
  • Strap tension should be adequate but not overly tight.
  • The respirator should fit comfortably across the bridge of the nose. Some masks fit better on protruding noses and others fit better on flat noses.
  • The respirator should be big enough so that it completely and comfortably spans the distance from the nose to the chin.
  • There has to be room for eye protection for half-mask respirators.
  • Users should be able to talk comfortably and easily.
  • Respirators should be snug but not uncomfortably tight against the face and cheeks.

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Seal Checks

Go a step beyond fit and you come to seal checks. To assure a safe seal, OSHA requires employees to perform both a positive and a negative pressure seal check. Seal checks must be performed each time a respirator is put on and before fit testing. The process is fully explained in Appendix B, but here’s a preview.

To perform a positive pressure seal check, have employees close off or cover the exhalation valve. Some respirators might require the user to remove the exhalation valve cover in order to adequately close or cover the valve. Next, tell workers to gently exhale into the respirator. The respirator seal is considered adequate if a slight positive pressure can be built up, the face piece slightly inflates, and there is no evidence of outward leakage.

To perform a negative pressure seal check, have employees close off or cover the inlet opening of the canister or cartridges by covering it with the palm of the hands or by replacing the filter seals. Some respirators might require removing the cartridges in order to adequately close up or cover the inlet. Next, tell workers to gently inhale so that the respirator collapses slightly. Employees should hold their breath for 10 seconds. The respirator seal is considered adequate if the face piece remains slightly deflated and there is no evidence of inward leakage.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk some more about fit-testing respirators and the steps employees need to take before and after they use a respirator.

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