Respiratory Protection Equipment 101

Published On: June 20, 2024By Categories: Safety, Safety Matters

It is important to have a program that protects workers from inhaling dangerous substances.

By Alexandra Walsh

Respirators at the jobsite protect employees from inhaling harmful substances such as chemical, biological, and radiological agents as well as silica dust.

These substances can be in the form of airborne vapors, gases, dust, fogs, fumes, mists, smoke, or sprays. Some respirators also protect that employees do not breathe air that contains dangerously low levels of oxygen or is otherwise immediately dangerous to life or health.

Respirators may be used to provide protection during routine operations where work engineering controls and work practices are not able to provide sufficient protection from hazards or in emergencies.

In situations where employees are exposed to harmful airborne hazards, respirators must seal off and isolate the user’s respiratory system from the contaminated environment.

The risk that a user will experience a harmful effect when using respiratory protection depends on how toxic or hazardous the air contaminants are, how concentrated the contaminants are in the air, how long the workers are exposed, and the degree of isolation the respirator provides.

An atmosphere-supplying respirator or supplied-air respirator provides clean breathing air from an uncontaminated source.

Selecting the Right Respirator

Proper selection of respiratory protection equipment involves evaluating the workplace premises, what types of job functions are performed in the workplace, identifying reasonably foreseeable emergencies, and knowing employee health conditions.

Atmosphere-supplying respirators are used to provide breathing air from a source other than and independent of the surrounding natural atmosphere. Respirators that supply breathing air are generally used in highly hazardous work environments.

It is critical that the respirator provide breathing air of highest quality and that the equipment operates reliably. The two types of these kinds of respirators are:

  • Self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), which is air supplied from a tank or cylinder of compressed air or oxygen. For this type of respirator, the source of breathing air is designed to be carried by the equipment user.
  • Supplied-air respirator (SAR), also known as an air-line respirator, which receives air from a connecting hose. The source of air is either a pressurized cylinder or an air compressor. Because the employee does not carry the air on their back when using this respirator, breathable air can be provided over a longer time period than with a self-contained breathing apparatus.

Examples of atmosphere-supplying respirators with tight-fitting facepieces and positive pressure characteristics include a self-contained breathing apparatus; a supplied-air respirator and full elastomeric facepiece (allowing it to expand and contract); an abrasive-blasting supplied-air respirator and full elastomeric facepiece; and a supplied-air respirator with an escape bottle and full elastomeric facepiece.

An atmosphere-supplying respirator or supplied-air respirator provides clean breathing air from an uncontaminated source.

Pressure-demand respirators are positive pressure atmosphere-supplying respirators that admit breathing air to the facepiece when the positive pressure is reduced inside the facepiece by inhalation.

An air-purifying respirator removes contaminants from the air.

Developing Respiratory Program

It is important to develop a written respiratory protection program that includes procedures for the use of respirators in any work area where protection from airborne hazards is required. The procedures in your program need to be specific to your particular workplace.

All required elements of the respiratory protection program must be in writing. Health and safety programs are usually more effectively put into use and evaluated if the procedures are available in a written form for study and review. Also, a written respiratory protection program is the best way to take into account that the unique characteristics of the worksite are considered.

Developing the written program encourages you to thoroughly assess and document information pertaining to respiratory hazards your employees are exposed to, both during normal operating conditions and during reasonably foreseeable emergencies.

Respiratory Program Content

Your respiratory protection program should contain the following procedures:

  • Selecting appropriate respirators for use in the workplace
  • Training employees in the proper use of respirators (putting them on and removing them), the limitations on their use, and their maintenance
  • Providing medical evaluation of employees who must use respirators
  • Fit testing tight-fitting respirators
  • Using respirators properly in routine situations as well as in foreseeable emergencies
  • Checking for adequate air supply, quantity, and flow of breathing air for respirators
  • Setting up schedules for cleaning, disinfecting, storing, inspecting, repairing, removing, or discarding and otherwise maintaining respirators.

Implementing and Updating Respiratory Program

Once you have established a written program that covers all the required elements that apply to your workplace, make sure the program is appropriately put into action. In so doing, the program should be administered and overseen by appointing a program administrator.

Make sure the program is updated as necessary to reflect relevant changes in your workplace. Revise the elements of the program that have been affected by changes that relate to respiratory hazards in work areas. For example, revise the appropriate sections of your written program if new processes or new chemicals are introduced into the workplace that could impact respirator use.

In addition, if you make any changes in the types of respirators used or in any elements of the respiratory protection program, you must make appropriate revisions to the written program and follow up that they are implemented.

When Respirators Fail

When respirators fail or don’t provide the degree of protection that is expected, the user is at an increased risk of any adverse health effects associated with exposure to respiratory hazards.

Also, the margin for error in atmospheres dangerous to life or health has to be slight or nonexisting because an equipment malfunction or employee mistake can—without warning—expose the employee to an atmosphere incapable of supporting human life.

The exposure may disable the employee and require an immediate rescue to save their life. That’s why it’s critical that respirators are properly selected and used in compliance with the Respiratory Protection standard (29 CFR 1910.134).

Engineering and Administrative Controls

At times, administrative control is necessary while engineering control measures are being developed and implemented.

If respirators are necessary to protect the health of the employee while engineering controls are being developed, they must without question be provided. Engineering controls physically change the work environment to reduce employees’ exposure to air contaminants.

Engineering controls may include:

  • Changes in work processes
  • Isolation or enclosure of a work process or employees
  • Local exhaust system or general ventilation
  • Substitution of less hazardous substances for harmful materials.

Administrative controls involve changes in the length of time or the time of day when an employee can be exposed. Examples of administrative controls would be employee rotation or rescheduling work in areas to times when air contaminant levels are low.

John Fowler, CSP, CMSP, Gives Respirator Tips for Silica
MSHA Passes Final Rule Reducing Silica Dust Exposure
The U.S. Department of Labor announced on April 16 that its Mine Safety and Health Administration has issued a final rule to better protect the nation’s miners from health hazards associated with exposure to respirable crystalline silica, also known as silica dust or quartz dust.

The final rule lowers the permissible exposure limit of respirable crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air for a fullshift exposure, calculated as an 8-hour time-weighted average. If a miner’s exposure exceeds the limit, the final rule requires mine operators to take immediate corrective actions to come into compliance.

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Alexandra Walsh is the vice president of Association Vision, a Washington, D.C.–area communications company. She has extensive experience in management positions with a range of organizations.

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