Respiratory protection is the fourth most-frequently cited Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violation. Exposure to airborne contaminants can, in some cases, pose an immediate threat to health or life. Small exposures over time can also eventually cause lung disease, lung cancer and a host of other illnesses. Low oxygen levels can result in disorientation, loss of consciousness and permanent damage. The dangers of airborne hazards are some of the most extreme. Health concerns that develop over time can also be hard to detect. These circumstances require Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) professionals to take the utmost caution and scrutiny when respiratory hazards are present.
The need for respiratory protection standards has also come into sharp focus at many workplaces because an airborne virus causes COVID-19. As businesses begin using respiratory protection such as masks to help combat the worldwide pandemic, more and more employees and employers need to understand and follow related respiratory protection standards. Whether respiratory hazards are new territory or routine for your business, this compliance guide can help you and your workplace stay safe.
Who Sets Respiratory Protection Standards?
Many organizations research, compile and enforce respiratory protection standards. Each one has specific guidelines and standards. While not all are mandatory for your workplace, they all represent best practices to keep you and your co-workers safe.
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
NIOSH also falls under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), where they have certain authorities related to respirators. They create respirator standards and approve qualifying models for use in medical settings, construction sites and general industries. They create the procedures and requirements respirator manufacturers must meet to be NIOSH-certified. They also establish minimum requirements for inspections and tests to determine the effectiveness of respirators in hazardous atmospheres.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
OSHA is the main body governing the standards your workplace needs to comply with for respirators. The OSHA rules lay out mandatory standards for the proper use of respirators in the workplace.
OSHA also has several standards particular to the maritime and construction industries, and they align closely with the rules for general industries. You can also access a collection of OSHA respiratory protection fact sheets to guide your respiratory protection decision making.
American National Standards Institute (ANSI)
Unlike the government agencies above, ANSI is a private, not-for-profit body that creates voluntary standards. In general, ANSI’s rules aren’t compulsory and are rather best practices.
Many of the standards align closely with the OSHA standards. The main difference is there is a more conservative assigned protection factor (APF) required for disposable respirators. The rules also outline requirements for respiratory protection programs and standard operating procedures. The rulings guide everything from the selection, training and fit testing of respirators to their maintenance, inspection, storage and disposal. Finally, the standards also discuss breathing air and oxygen-deficient atmospheres.
Standards to Consider
Among the many organizations that set respiratory standards, two matter most to employers and employees, and one is legally required.
The OSHA respiratory protection standards are the first ones you should study because they are legally enforced. All the rules you have to follow are contained in OSHA 29 CFR Part 1910.134, which took effect in 2006.
Maritime standards, 1915.154, 1917.92 and 1918.102 and construction standard 1910.134 also cover respiratory protection. In each, the guidance is identical to those in 1910.134.
So, what general requirements has OSHA established in this standard? When harmful atmospheric environments are present, the initial step is to use engineering controls like ventilation. When that is not feasible, or not enough to remove the risk, respirators are required. A respirator should be distributed to each employee who needs one to protect their health. Those respirators should be suitable for the intended purpose. Further, the employer must establish and maintain an effective, OSHA-complaint respiratory protection program.
In addition to the respiratory protection program, the rules govern:
- Selection of respirators: Employers must use correct procedures to select the appropriate respirator. There are differences in the process for immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) or non-IDLH scenarios.
- Medical evaluation procedures: Employers must use a medical evaluation to determine if an employee is medically fit to wear a respirator.
- Fit testing: If the respirator has a tight-fitting facepiece, employers need to have employees fit tested.
- Proper use of respirators: Employers must avoid certain prohibitive conditions, which may result in leakage. Employees must not remove respirators in hazardous conditions. Everyone must take action to ensure effective operation throughout the work shift.
- Maintenance and care of respirators: The respirators employees use must be cleaned, disinfected, stored, inspected and repaired using appropriate procedures.
- Breathing air quality and use: Employers must provide high-purity breathing gases for atmosphere-supplying respirators.
- Labeling and identification: All filters, cartridges and canisters must be labeled and color-coded with legible, NIOSH-approved labels.
- Training and information: The employer must provide annual training that is understandable and comprehensive. They must also provide information for employees who wear respirators voluntarily when not required.
- Program evaluation: The employer must periodically evaluate the respiratory protection program to ensure the established rules are appropriately executed, and employees wear their respirators correctly.
- Recordkeeping: The employer must document and retain records on medical evaluations, fit testing and the respiratory protection program. These written documents help employees get involved in the program, employers audit the program and OSHA officials determine compliance with standards.
Many businesses choose to adopt voluntary ANSI standards because they rely on consensus to keep employees safe. Further, they often overlap with OHSA regulations while remaining easier to read and understand. OSHA sometimes even adopts ANSI standards. In this case, the 1992 version of Z88.2 has been incorporated into OSHA standards. The 2015 Z88.2 standard, the latest version, has undergone major revisions and is not yet reflected in OSHA regulations. Following the 2015 Z88.2 standard will, therefore, allow your company to go above and beyond legal requirements and may prepare your workplace for future changes.
The standard includes measures for:
- Respiratory protection program: A workplace must have a single, qualified individual to manage the program. Most of the program elements are similar to those OSHA requires. Additional requirements include the periodic reevaluation of respiratory hazards and a three-tiered audit process.
- Hazard assessment: Choosing the correct respirator requires conducting a hazard assessment to determine if the atmosphere is IDLH, non-IDLH, oxygen-deficient or bioaerosol.
- Cartridge and canister change schedules: Each cartridge and canister has a different service life depending on the chemicals it must absorb. An OSH professional must determine its effectiveness against the chemicals in use and replace it before a chemical breakthrough can occur using an established change schedule.
- Respiratory protection training: Many individuals involved in the respiratory protection program will need certain types of instruction. The person performing the training must have specific competencies. Employees issuing the respirators must receive training in providing the correct respirators in the approved configurations. Those who maintain and service breathing air systems must receive education from the manufacturer as well as appropriate certifications. Any supervisor overseeing a respirator wearer must have training to identify errors in respirator use and assist in emergencies in the event of a malfunction.
Z88.2 also references ANSI/ASSE Z88.10, which governs respirator fit testing methods. Last updated in 2006, Z88.6 discusses physical qualifications for personnel wearing respirators. ANSI plans to release further standards in Z88.15, which explains respiratory fit capability; Z88.16, which concerns assigned protection factors; and Z88.7, which clarifies terminology.
What Is a Respirator?
OSHA defines a respirator as a personal protective device covering the nose and mouth, the whole face or the entire head. They guard the wearer against hazardous atmospheres. They come in both tight-fitting and loose-fitting types. The tight-fitting respirators include half-masks covering the mouth and nose and facepieces covering the face from hairline to below the chin. Loose-fitting respirators are hoods or helmets that cover the entire head.
Respirators break down into two distinct classes. The air-purifying variety respirators remove or filter contaminants from the air. The atmosphere-supplying type provides breathable, uncontaminated air, usually from a portable or external tank, and is used for more hazardous exposures.
Respirators are useful when employees must operate in environments with low oxygen or where harmful contaminants pose a risk. Those impurities include the following:
When Should a Respirator Be Used?
A respirator should be used when atmospheric hazards can’t be controlled in other ways. It’s crucial to understand their limitations and that they cannot replace more effective solutions, such as working with a less toxic material when the option is available. Some cases where a respirator is necessary because other controls may not be possible include:
- Some repair and maintenance operations.
- When engineering controls are being installed.
- Whenever engineering controls alone cannot reduce exposure to below an acceptable level.
OSH professionals should be aware of some of the leading causes of respiratory hazards, which often warrant respirators and other controls, such as:
- Crystalline silica particulates, originating from rock, concrete, brick, block and mortar.
- Coal Workers’ Pneumoconiosis (CWP), or black lung disease, caused by inhaling coal mine dust.
- Welding fumes, which are Group 1 carcinogens and pose a risk of cancer.
- Wildfire smoke, which necessitates fitted, reliable respiratory equipment for first responders.
- Asbestos, found in construction, ship repair, manufacturing and automotive repair work.
- Hydrogen sulfide, emitted from animal waste, which poses a risk in farms.
- Agricultural dust, including grain dust mixed with mold, plant material, animal hair and dander, feces and dirt.
How Should Respiratory Hazards Be Controlled?
Both OSHA and NIOSH reference the hierarchy of controls in dealing with workplace hazards. The NIOSH hierarchy is more stringent and includes these five levels of control:
- Engineering controls, or physical changes to the workplace
- Administrative controls, or changes in activities, practices or actions
- Personal protective equipment (PPE)
OSHA’s hierarchy is the same, except elimination and substitution are one level. Physically removing the hazard is the most effective at preventing exposure to respiratory hazards, while PPE is least effective. So, respirators, a form of PPE, should be considered a “last resort” for controlling respiratory hazards.
To control respiratory hazards correctly, you must first consider if the danger can be removed altogether. If the work process uses a toxic cleaning solution, you might eliminate it by using a manual cleaning method instead. You could also substitute it with a less harmful or non-toxic chemical. A typical engineering control for respiratory hazards is to use a fume hood or ventilation to draw airborne contaminants away from employees.
An administrative control would be to limit employees’ exposure to the hazard. This task can be accomplished by limiting the amount of time spent or work done in a polluted atmosphere. Further, the employees could rotate out of the area frequently to protect each individual from prolonged exposure.
Many of these controls can be used concurrently and should be the primary measures for reducing the hazards. If these methods cannot minimize exposure to a safe level or are impossible to implement, respiratory masks or helmets should be used. It’s also acceptable to use them in the interim while other controls are being installed.
What Are the Types of Respirators?
Choosing the right respirator for your purposes can be complicated by the many mask types available. Some are disposable, while others are reusable. Some filter out certain pollutants with corresponding filters, while others provide a source of clean, oxygenated air.
Air-purifying respirators remove contaminants from the air. They include:
- Disposable particulate respirators: These air-purifying masks are disposable half-masks and can filter out small particulates, such as viruses, dust, mist and fumes. They do not protect against gases and vapors. N95 masks are a well-known example because they are effective at filtering out viruses such as the novel coronavirus. NIOSH N95 standards require the mask to have at least 95% filter efficiency when used in the worst-case conditions. N99s offer 99% filter efficiency and N100s offer 99.97% filter efficiency. Some settings require R- or P- series masks, which provide the same protections as the N-series with moderate to strong resistance to oils. These masks sometimes have exhalation valves, which open when the wearers exhale and close when they inhale. Because they are only half-masks, eye protection or goggles are often needed.
- Elastomeric half-mask respirators: Elastomeric facepieces are reusable with replaceable filters or cartridges. The half-mask variety covers the nose and mouth and can protect against gases, vapors or particles, depending on the cartridges or filters used. These are sometimes called gas masks when used with chemical filters to remove gases or vapors. Particulate elastomeric respirators are best against dust, mist and fumes. Combination elastomeric respirators will protect against particulates, gases and vapors and are the heaviest type. They may require separate eye protection.
- Elastomeric full-face respirators: These masks have the same protections as an elastomeric half-mask respirator depending on which filters are used. They are reusable with replaceable canisters, cartridges or filters. Because they cover the entire face, they also offer eye protection.
- Powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs): PAPRs have battery-powered blowers that pull air through a replaceable canister, filter or cartridge. Some are loose-fitting helmets, safe for use with facial hair, and do not need to be fit tested. They can protect against gases, vapors or particles.
Air-supplying respirators offer a clean air source to the wearer while completely blocking exposure to the contaminated air. They include:
- Supplied-air respirators: These respirators connect to a separate source of clean, compressed air through a hose. They are lightweight and approved for long hours in non-IDLH work environments. They generally cover the entire face and require a tight-fitting seal.
- Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBAs): These respiratory systems include a portable air supply tank and protect against higher concentrations of dangerous chemicals. They are the preferred respirator for firefighters. These air tanks can weigh 30 pounds or more, so they require specialized training. They come in open- and close-circuit types. Closed-circuit SCBAs may provide up to four hours of air, while open-circuit SCBAS may only provide 30-60 minutes of air. Some are approved for IDLH environments. In general, these systems are used when only needed for a short length of time to enter and escape hazardous atmospheres.
- Air-supplying combination respirators: These respirators have a secondary air supply if the primary airline fails to provide enough air to escape the environment. The SCBA-type combination respirator can be used in IDLH situations. An air-purifying/supplied-air respirator has an air-purifying component combined with a supplied air hose and cannot be used in IDLH environments.
How to Choose the Right Respirators
Determining the best respirator for use in a particular work environment is a complicated process. The OSH professional must conduct a hazard analysis and examine the workers’ activity and the work environment. Every respirator is approved for a particular duration with certain limitations. Further, the right type of filter, cartridge or canister must be used with an air-purifying respirator to be effective against the specific pollutants present.
1. Conduct an Exposure Assessment
First, the employer must understand the nature and magnitude of employee exposures to respiratory hazards. It’s vital to establish a reasonable estimate of exposure, including anticipation of foreseeable emergencies. The evaluation should consider both the physical state and chemical form of the contaminants. Conduct an exposure assessment when:
- An OSHA-recognized substance, such as lead or methylene chloride, will be used.
- Employees notice respiratory symptoms or complain of irritation or odor.
- When visible emissions, such as fumes, dust or aerosols are present.
When an exposure assessment is necessary, these three estimation methods can be employed:
- Sampling: The most reliable method involves personal exposure modeling. OSH professionals should use a testing method appropriate for the contaminants and test exposures under the worst-case conditions or with enough changes and operations to determine the range of exposure.
- Objective information: You can rely on evidence and data to understand the nature of exposure. There may be evidence indicating that handling a material under worst-case conditions will not release a high enough concentration to warrant the use of a respirator. Use data on the contaminants’ physical and chemical properties combined with room dimensions, the air exchange rate and the containment release rate to estimate the maximum exposure level.
- Variation: Using an exposure test that recognizes exposure variability or worst-case estimation techniques, you can evaluate the highest foreseeable exposure levels.
2. Consider Job Site and Worker Characteristics
OSHA requires the evaluator to consider three factors related to the job site and worker:
- Configuration of the job site: Confined spaces may not allow for SCBAs, while obstructions or machinery could snag the hoses used with airline respirators. A supplied-air tube will limit the range the wearer can conduct work in.
- Worker medical condition: Respirators pose physical burdens on their wearers. If workers’ medical condition prohibits restrictive breathing, they should not wear negative pressure respirators.
- Worker comfort: Even when not a medical concern, the workers’ preferences should play a role in the respirator selection. While a good option for many activities, SCBAs can weigh upwards of 30 pounds and cause discomfort. Powered air-purifying helmets usually rank high for breathing ease, skin comfort, temperature and humidity. Disposable facepieces are lighter and more convenient.
The ANSI Z88.2 standard recommends evaluating additional factors, including:
- How long the respirator will be used.
- Continuous vs. intermittent exposure to the contaminant.
- Demands on the worker, including whether the workload is light-, medium- or heavy-duty.
- Temperature and humidity of the work environment.
- Heat stress concerns related to other PPE worn.
- Whether extreme physical exertion may cause faster depletion of the air supply.
3. Evaluate Atmospheric Contaminants
Correctly identify the atmospheric contaminants so you can find a respirator rated to protect against the elements present. Be sure you understand whether the airborne contaminant is:
- A particulate or a gas or vapor.
- A chemical with an available material safety data sheet.
- A biological, such as bacteria, mold, spores, a fungus or a virus.
- Subject to mandatory or recommended occupational exposure levels.
4. Understand Assigned Protection Factors (APF)
The APF refers to a functioning respirator’s expected level of protection for a trained user when correctly fitted. NIOSH, OSHA and ANSI each release their own APF, and the OSHA requirements default to its own ratings unless alternate ratings have been specified. In the 1910.134 OSHA standard, Table 1 lists the APF of various respirators.
For context, an APF of 5 means the wearer could expect to breathe in no more than one-fifth of the airborne contaminant. Thus, the higher the protection factor, the safer. The APF needed will depend on the concentration of the hazardous substance.
5. Evaluate the Kinds of Respirators and Relevant Characteristics
After evaluating the many factors that go into respirator selection, you should have a good idea of what type of respirator will work best for your purposes. For example, IDLH atmospheres require a full-face pressure-demand SCBA with at least 30-minutes of air or a combination full-face pressure-demand supplied-air respirator with an auxiliary self-contained air supply.
Once you know what characteristics you need, look for a NIOSH-certified respirator in that category.
6. Identify the Cartridge or Filter Life Expectancy
Finally, when using an air-purifying respirator, you must determine how often to change the purifying components. Remember that particular canisters and filters are rated for use with specific substances.
The life expectancy of a particulate filter will depend on the concentration of the contaminant. It’s time to replace the filter when:
- The wearer has difficulty breathing or experiences breathing resistance resulting from particle buildup.
- It becomes visibly dirty.
- It is damaged.
Cartridges are physical containers that include a filter, sorbent, catalyst or any combination of the three. They have an end-of-service-life indicator (ESLI), which usually indicates when the cartridge is nearing its end by changing colors.
How to Properly Fit a Respirator
When using a tight-fitting respirator, the seal around the facepiece must be unbroken, or you risk contaminated air leaking in. Respirators come in several sizes across manufacturers, and each will fit the shape of your face differently. An employee must receive a fit test with the same make, model, style and size of respirator that will be used on the job. The fit test will be preceded by a medical exam to determine if the employee is medically able to wear a respirator. Fit testing must be done annually to ensure the employee will have the best-fitting respirator.
On the job, the wearer will also perform a quick seal check before entering the hazardous environment each time the device is worn.
Respirator Fit Testing
Fit testing includes two categories of evaluations — qualitative and quantitative.
- Qualitative: This test is taken on a pass/fail basis. Users use their sense of taste or smell or reaction to an irritant to determine if the facepiece is providing an air-tight barrier. While the employee wears the facepiece, the tester introduces a substance to see if the employee can detect it. This test is better for half-mask disposable or elastomeric respirators.
- Quantitative: A machine can determine the actual amount of leakage into a facepiece. The employee wears the facepiece, which connects to the device via a probe. Then, the tester releases either generated aerosol, ambient aerosol or controlled negative pressure. The machine measures the concentration of the substance inside the respirator.
The employer needs to provide a reasonable selection of models and sizes to choose from. No one style, make, model or size will fit every person, so the fit testing will continue until an appropriately fitting option is found.
Respiratory Protection Training and Certification
OSHA requires the employer’s respiratory protection program to include adequate, comprehensive training. Training ensures employees know how to put on and take off their respirators, and how to use them safely to avoid the contaminants they may be exposed to in routine activities and emergencies. Each employee should be able to demonstrate their knowledge on:
- Why a respirator is necessary and what factors can compromise its effectiveness.
- The limitations and capabilities of the respirator.
- How to use the respirator in emergencies or when it malfunctions.
- How to inspect, use, remove and seal check the respirator.
- How to maintain and store the respirator.
- What medical signs and symptoms limit the effective use of respirators.
- OSHA respiratory protection requirements.
While OSHA does not require a respiratory protection certification to prove an employee’s knowledge of the area, it is an easy way to show the employee passed the required training. If you’re an employer, you have a record of every employee who has completed the necessary training. If you’re an employee, you have a certificate valid for 12 months you can take with you to any employer or respiratory hazard you encounter.
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