Words and Photos: Hannah Scott, Marketing Manager, EMEA at Gentex Corporation
Ensuring the protection of workers’ respiratory health has always been important, but the last two and a half years since the COVID-19 outbreak have emphasized that selecting appropriate respiratory protective equipment (RPE) for your working environment is essential for personal safety.
But what kind of RPE is right for you and your working environment?
Short answer: It depends on various factors such as your exposure limits, work schedule, potential hazards, and facial features.
Now let’s go into a bit more detail.
There are various types of RPE, including disposable and reusable options. Generally, though, if RPE is a part of your uniform, most companies prefer to use reusable options for consistency, cost, and environmental purposes. Hence, the two types of RPE which will be assessed in the article are:
- Powered air purifying respirators (PAPRs, such as the PureFlo 3000).
- Non-powered tight-fitting respirators, such as reusable half masks and full face masks.
Powered Air-Purifying Respirators (PAPRs): PAPRs are battery-powered devices that use a blower to pull air through attached filters (for particles) or cartridges (for gases or vapors) to clean it before delivering it to the breathing zone of the wearer1.
Reusable tight-fitting respirator: A respiratory inlet covering that forms a complete seal with the face2. They are reusable devices with exchangeable cartridges or filters. They can be quarter, half, or full face covering1.
Fit test: The use of a protocol to evaluate the fit of a respirator qualitatively or quantitatively on an individual2.
‘Protection’ can mean a lot of different things. It could mean how efficient or well-fitting a mask is or how efficient the filters on a mask are, for example.
There are also official standards that detail the expected protection levels that different types of RPE should deliver. For instance, the Assigned Protection Factor (APF) of RPE means ‘the workplace level of respiratory protection that a respirator or class of respirators is expected to provide to employees when the employer implements a continuing, effective respiratory protection program’3. However, this only summarizes the expectations of a certain type of respirator and does not state how a particular respirator brand compares in terms of “protection” to another brand. Although APF aids in the RPE selection process, it is not enough to judge a respirator by its APF.
Professional advice should always be sought, but there are many aspects to consider when choosing RPE, including:
- Is the mask adequate and suitable? Think about the environment, personal circumstances, and exposure level of contaminants.
- Will this mask fit appropriately? Think about whether the mask has a seal against the face or not, the steps needed to ensure a correct fit, and the range of sizes that can be offered.
- How efficient are the filters? Bear in mind that different filter types have different minimum expected efficiencies according to official standards (e.g., see NIOSH 42CFR84 for particulate filter regulations).
The definition of ‘comfortable’ RPE is subjective and depends on various factors, including the wearer’s facial features, rate of breathing, personal preferences, working environment, and wider uniform. However, generally, people would like their RPE to be:
- Easy to breathe through
- Provide unobstructed movement and vision
Both negative-pressure and powered respirators have pros and cons when it comes to comfort, but reflect on the following:
- How much does the product weigh?
- What is the breathing resistance of the product? (As a rule, the lower, the better!)
- How well does this mask fit?
- Does this mask have a substantial impact on any other parts of my uniform, my vision, or my movement?
The most comfortable mask for an individual may take some time to find and should probably be discussed with an accredited fit tester and/or the employer.
- Fit Testing
Fit testing is an essential part of the selection process for negative-pressure respirators and tests whether a subject achieves an adequate seal on the face when wearing a given respirator. The procedure should be undertaken by an accredited fit tester and, according to OSHA4, fit testing should be conducted annually and repeated: “whenever an employee reports, or the employer or the physician or other licensed health care professional makes visual observations of changes in the employee’s physical condition that could affect respirator fit (e.g., facial scarring, dental changes, cosmetic surgery, or an obvious change in body weight).”
Note also that negative-pressure respirators should not be worn when the wearer has facial hair on the cheeks and along the chin line, as this could impact the adequacy of the mask seal – impacting personal protection.
On the other hand, as loose-fitting powered respirators such as the PureFlo 3000 do not have a tight-fitting seal over the mouth and nose, fit tests are not necessary, and it does not matter if the wearer has facial hair.
Fit tests are standard procedures and are relatively infrequent, but the processes and costs are something to consider.
With reusable respirators, whether tight-fitting or powered, cleaning and maintenance protocols need to be in place to ensure the correct usage and hygiene of the products. But this doesn’t mean to say that such processes are cumbersome. Depending on your requirements, it may be a case of checking, cleaning, and correctly storing the equipment5.
Appropriate maintenance of your RPE ensures that the wearer is adequately protected, improves product longevity, and provides peace-of-mind for both the mask wearer and employer.
It is advisable to monitor RPE maintenance by filling in a maintenance log. A maintenance log is a document that asks the mask wearer to check certain aspects of their RPE (e.g., filter life) and allows the wearer/employer to keep track of when checks/procedures were carried out. Manufacturers sometimes offer templates (Gentex Corporation, for instance), but sometimes employers themselves have their own documentation. Speak to your health and safety officer for more information.
For more information about any of the points raised in this article, please contact Mark Wilson, Director of Sales – North America Industrial Respiratory, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2018). A Guide to Air-Purifying Respirators. [online] Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2018-176/pdfs/2018-176.pdf [Accessed 26 Aug. 2022].
2 Occupational Safety and Health Administration (n.d.). 1910.134 – Respiratory Protection. [online] Available at: https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/regulations/standardnumber/1910/1910.134 [Accessed 26 Aug 2022].
3 Occupational Safety and Health Administration (2009). Assigned Protection Factors for the Revised Respiratory Protection Standard. [online] Available at: https://www.osha.gov/sites/default/files/publications/3352-APF-respirators.pdf [Accessed 26 Aug. 2022].
4 OSHA . Respiratory Protection. 29 CFR 1910.134. Final rule. Fed Regist 63:1152-1300.
5 Risk assessment required.