What could be simpler than a respirator?
Updated: Feb 20
By Jared Barnes
Providing or wearing a respirator seems like a simple and easy solution to mitigating a worker's exposure to dust and other air contaminants. However, it is likely this approach won't protect the worker when needed or cover health and safety obligations without additional consideration.
Evidence suggests that persons act on estimates of their own personal risk. Personal risk is typically underestimated for chronic hazards such as airborne dusts where visible or immediate harm may not be apparent. For example; respirable dusts are low-irritant, odourless, primarily invisible airborne contaminants where long-term exposure can lead to chronic diseases such as pneumoconiosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cancers. All are degenerative diseases that can be life-threatening. The long-latency period (years to tens of years) between exposure and the development of disease symptoms makes determining personal health risk difficult with no obvious feedback mechanism for a person to change their behaviour on exposure. It may seem obvious to some, but respirators only function as a protective control to prevent exposure when they are worn. When the choice is left to self-assessment, donning a respirator is often undertaken too late, removed too early or not worn at all.
When respirators are typically worn, a presumption is made that it will sufficiently protect the wearer; when assessing risk, the counter argument should be considered. Persons are more likely to undertake risky behaviour under the assumption they remain protected, on the contrary, they are more cautious when they believe they are not protected.
Reflect on your own experiences. Should other risk controls be implemented in addition to wearing respiratory protection? A person wearing a respirator blowing out dusty air filters with compressed air is exposed to a higher level of residual risk than that which would be considered acceptable. The level of risk is compounded by the spread of dust into adjacent spaces (where workers may be operating) or surfaces (such as the workers clothing). Respiratory protection is not an acceptable substitute for higher-order risk controls, in this case an enclosed vacuum box, a wet wash procedure or filter replacement should be used. In the above scenario, should the respirator be ineffective, harmful exposures can result for the person and workers in the surrounding area. The question is 'how likely is it that I am protected?'.
With the previous scenario in mind, many employers may only provide one respirator model for all staff onsite. There is an expectation one respirator model will be able to sufficiently fit variations in facial characteristics all workers will undoubtedly have. Without fit-testing to verify a facepiece adequately fits and is comfortable, it is likely workers will not be protected.
Most half or full-face respirators operate as air purifying respirators which require a close fit to the face to ensure a sufficient seal is formed (note, contrary to popular belief; this includes powered air purifying respirators (PAPR)). Air purifying respirators become redundant if contaminated air is able to by-pass the respirator filter and be inhaled, regardless of the type or class fitted. Think of your workplace and estimate the number of workers who wear respirators but are not clean-shaven about the jaw, neck and cheeks. Studies have shown that facial hair stops a mask from forming a reliable seal on the face as hair diameters are typically many times larger than the types of contaminants you're trying to prevent inhaling. If hair is present on the mask seal, it is very likely you're not sufficiently protected.
Fit testing shows that each type of respirator worn by a worker can form a sufficient seal on the face. Fit tests are dependent on the worker correctly donning the mask each time it is worn. To ensure a mask is worn correctly, the wearer must:
Identify the correct position of the mask on the face.
Ensure no hair or debris is present at the seal of the facepiece (therefore clean-shaven).
Ensure the respiratory protective equipment is maintained.
Undertake a qualitative fit/seal-check and ensure no significant changes to the wearer's facial structure have occurred since the last fit test.
Factors taken into account when selecting respirators include the type of air contaminant, the wearer's facial structure and features, the environment in which the respirator is worn, and the task performed. These factors ensure the use of respiratory protection does not lead to the escalation of other seemingly unrelated risks. For example, does the respirator restrict vision or communication? Are workers expected to wear masks in hot, humid environments or to undertake moderate to high rates of work? A poorly selected respirator can affect job satisfaction, cause medical issues for certain workers and act as a risk multiplier for other workplace hazards.
Based on the above information, you may be realising that respiratory protection needs supportive administrative risk controls to ensure the correct respiratory protection is selected and the use of the respirator remains effective. These supportive administrative controls are collectively known as a respiratory protection program.
Respiratory protection programs include provisions for worker training so they understand and identify the risks. The program sets guidelines on what constitutes respiratory compliance and how the program is to be re-evaluated. Providing clear and concise documentation improves the likelihood the program and use of respiratory protective equipment will be effective.
Regularly reviewed Respiratory Protection Programs ensure the selection, fit, use, wearing, testing, storage and maintenance of equipment is up-to-date as new information becomes available and site conditions change.
Revaluating how you use respiratory protection onsite can improve workplace conditions and worker satisfaction. Consider respiratory protection in combination with higher-order controls as an encompassing system, it is the last line of defence should other controls fail. Recognise respiratory protection is unlikely to be effective unless additional administrative controls are used to select the correct respirator and improve the likelihood it is used and functions correctly. Provide worker training, maintenance and audits schedules to improve knowledge and health and safety culture on site.
Groundwork Plus' Occupational Hygienist is a Respfit accredited fit tester. Our Occupational Hygiene branch is here to assist your team choose the right type of respiratory protection, develop a respiratory protection program for your workplace and conduct fit-testing of respirators. We provide quantitative fit testing and training to give you peace of mind that the respirator chosen fits and is up to the task to protect you and your workers. Contact Groundwork Plus to book your team's fit tests today! Call us on 1800 GW Plus (1800 497 587).