Lung Health On The Job

Wearing Respirators in the Workplace

While on the job, safety should be a primary concern. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez believes, “No one should have to sacrifice their life for their livelihood, because a nation built on the dignity of work must provide safe working conditions for its people.”

This type of workplace safety includes things in the atmosphere that can’t always be seen; such as harmful vapors, smokes, dust, gases, fumes, and more. Whether seen or unseen, these pollutants pose serious risks to employees who are exposed to them for both short-term and extended periods of time. The best protection against these irritants is to use high quality respirators in the workplace.


What is a Respirator and How Does it Protect Me?

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a respirator is, “a protective device that covers the nose and mouth or entire face to protect against hazardous atmospheres.” When employees work in environments where there are low amounts of oxygen, or with harmful vapors, gases, fumes, smokes, dusts, etc., respirators protect individuals against these pollutants, many of which have been linked to diseases, cancers, and even death.

When these pollutants are present and engineering controls aren’t adequate enough to eliminate them, respirators are the next best defense for employee safety. Exposure to these irritants and/or low-oxygen environments is not only potentially dangerous in the long term, but also in the short term. When areas are deficient of oxygen, an employee may experience an accelerated heartbeat, impaired thinking and coordination, and an increased breathing rate. These conditions are potentially dangerous in the day-to-day working environment and could easily contribute to a workplace accident.


Which Respirator Should I Choose?

A wide variety of respirators are available on the market today. Respirators vary by the types of pollutants they protect against, the level of protection, and the bodily location. Choosing the best type of respirator for your hazardous working environment will take a thorough assessment of the workplace. Identifying the hazardous pollutants and the level of exposure should be determined by an industrial hygienist or some other on-staff safety personnel.

Generally, there are two major types of air-purifying respirators: air-purifying respirators and atmosphere-supplying respirators.


Air-Purifying Respirators – These respirators use filters or cartridges to remove contaminants from the air which employees breathe. These masks can be a full-face or half mask, and work best to filter gases, dusts, mists, vapors or fumes. Air-purifying respirators are available in both disposable and reusable types. Gas masks are also included in this category.

Although these respirators are great for cleaning the air, they should not be used for oxygen-deficient environments. In low-oxygen environments, supplied air is necessary.  


Atmosphere-Supplying Respirators – These respirators don’t filter the air; but rather, they provide clean air from an uncontaminated source. These types of respirators offer the greatest amount of protection for highly toxic irritants. Atmosphere-supplying respirators include air-line respirators and self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBAs).


Cleaning & Maintaining Respirators

The act of cleaning the respirator consists of disassembling the respirator, washing, disinfecting, properly rinsing, allowing it to dry, and reassembling it. More details should be included in the information provided by the particular manufacturer. The frequency of cleaning and disinfecting will vary based on harmful substance exposure, type of respirator, frequency of use, and the number of people who use the respirator on a regular basis.


Respirator Training

In addition to being trained to use a respirator as a new user, OSHA requires that employers give free respiratory protection training annually to those required to wear one for the job. OSHA also requires that training be given by employers whenever there are changes in the workplace, changes in the type of respirator used, or a worker is given new assignments related to the respirator. Topics of training, outlined by OSHA, should cover:

  • Why a respirator is necessary
  • Limitations and capabilities of the respirator
  • How to properly fit, inspect, and use your respirator
  • How to check the respirator seal
  • How to use the respirator in emergency situations, even when the respirator will not work properly
  • How to notice signs and symptoms that may prevent someone from using a respirator (e.g. asthma or emphysema, and others may have trouble breathing)
  • How improper use, maintenance and fit, will limit the respirators ability to work effectively
  • How to properly store and maintain the respirator
  • What are the federal OSHA and state OSHA respiratory protection standards


Respirator Certification

In addition to training, there are certain regulations and recommendations for respirator wear and use. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) certifies respirators according to the type of assigned respirator and the level of protection.  


NIOSH Certified Respirators

As previously mentioned, the best respirators vary based on the industry, material type, and level of exposure an employee faces. Some of the most popular certified models include the following:


Protect Your Lungs

The overall safety of your lungs are important. The slight inconvenience or lack of comfort while wearing a respirator is unequal to the benefits provided! Now may be the best time to review your safety protocol when it comes to respirators! Make sure your equipment is cleaned and cared for properly. Ensure your employees are properly trained to use a respirator correctly. Remember that the health of your employees and yourself comes first in every line of work!

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