Special Topics in Safety Management

Respiratory Protection: Clearing the Air from the Outside In

OSHA estimates that as many as 5 million workers are required to wear respirators in more than 1 million workplaces throughout the United States. If you’re going to ensure that those workers are breathing clean air, you have to start from the outside and work your way in.

When you think of OSHA’s respiratory protection requirements, your first thought might be of workers wearing respirators. The respiratory protection standard doesn’t start there, though. It begins by requiring employers to first reduce workers’ exposures, if possible, using these external measures:

  • Engineering controls. Engineering controls “physically change the work environment to reduce employee exposure to air contaminants,” according to OSHA. If it is possible to control workers’ exposures through the use of ventilation, process enclosures, substitution of less hazardous chemicals, or similar “engineered” methods, you are required to do that instead of putting workers in respirators.
  • Administrative controls. Administrative controls restrict “the length of time or the time of day in which an employee can be exposed,” by OSHA’s definition. This type of control reduces exposures using strategies such as employee rotation and scheduling work for times when air contaminant levels are low.

If you can’t reduce workers’ exposures to airborne contaminants below the OSHA permissible exposure limit (PEL) using these strategies—or if you are in the process of putting these types of controls in place, but haven’t completely implemented them yet—you’ll have to put workers in respirators.


Respirators help ensure that workers aren’t exposed to harmful toxins including vapors, sprays, dusts, and gases, and insufficient levels of oxygen. BLR’s upcoming live webinar will explain how to protect your employees from potential air contaminant hazards. Click here for details.


Identifying Hazardous Atmospheres

When you’re implementing a respiratory protection program, you’ll need to select appropriate respirators. The first question you must answer when you’re selecting respirators is, what kind of hazardous atmosphere are my workers exposed to? As with controls, you’re working from the outside—what are the hazards in the air?—in. Hazardous atmospheres may be:

  • Oxygen deficient. If there’s less than 19.5% oxygen in the air, the atmosphere is “immediately dangerous to life and health.” No air-filtering respirator will correct an oxygen-deficient atmosphere; you’ll have to choose air-supplying respirators.
  • Contaminated with chemicals. Nearly 500 common hazardous chemicals are covered by an OSHA PEL, and many more have published nonregulatory exposure limits.
  • Contaminated with biological hazards. Sometimes you need to worry about whether your workers are exposed to airborne diseases, like tuberculosis (which is spread from person to person), hantavirus (which is spread by dried animal excreta), or valley fever (which is spread by contaminated dust).
  • Contaminated with radiological hazards. When radioactive materials become airborne, they can be very dangerous to workers. Special respirators are available that can remove radiological hazards from workers’ breathing air.
  • Potential emergency situations. If a foreseeable workplace emergency could release airborne contaminants, you may need a respiratory protection program.

Join us on September 9 for an in-depth, live webinar on how to protect your employees from potential air contaminant hazards. Our presenter will show you how to protect your company from potential citations and penalties. Learn More


Implementing a Respiratory Protection Program

If you do have hazardous atmospheres in your workplace that cannot be eliminated through engineering or administrative controls, you will need a comprehensive respiratory protection program. This required written program must cover:

With more organizations hiring independent contractors to deal with economic, staffing, and business challenges—with typical duties including janitorial duties, building construction and renovation, different production activities, security, and maintenance—it’s important to understand the risk of liability your organization could face if those workers aren’t properly trained on safety protocols.

Sure, in theory independent contractors are responsible for their activities, including safety, and their liability is not transferred to the company that has hired them. However, in the real world it’s not always so black and white. In fact, there are many situations where your organization could be liable.

Join us for an in-depth webinar on August 28 when our presenter, a seasoned safety lawyer, will provide a clear understanding of the potential safety risks and liability associated with independent contractors. He will also provide proven suggestions on how to minimize these risks and liabilities by assuring all contractual agreements, expectations, performance requirements, and expectations are in place before work begins.

You and your colleagues will learn:

  • Respirator selection procedures
  • Training that will be provided to workers, including how to put on, remove, and use a respirator; limitations on respirator use; and respirator maintenance
  • Medical evaluation of employees who must use respirators
  • Fit-testing procedures (for tight-fitting respirators)
  • How respirators should be used in both routine situations and in reasonably foreseeable emergencies
  • For atmosphere-supplying respirators, how you will ensure adequate breathing air supply, quantity, and flow
  • Schedules and procedures for cleaning, disinfecting, storing, inspecting, repairing, removing from service or discarding, and maintaining respirators
  • Procedures for regularly evaluating the effectiveness of the program

For more great information and advice on OSHA’s respiratory protection requirements and how you can create a safer workplace and achieve compliance, be sure to join us on September 9 for a webinar on Respiratory Protection Requirements: How to Keep Your Employees Safe with Effective and Compliant Strategies.