Stories are continually emerging about workers facing the consequences of inadequate respiratory protection. If workers are misinformed about the dangers they face in their occupation, it can have disastrous effects. That is exactly why the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has very specific regulations about personal protective equipment (PPE) and other means of respiratory protection that employers need to follow as part of keeping the health and safety of workers a top priority.
What is respiratory protection?
According to OSHA, respirators are PPE that protect the user’s respiratory system (lungs) from contaminants by keeping them from inhaling either harmful substances (including chemical, biological, and radiological agents) or air that is immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) (e.g., air that contains dangerously low levels of oxygen). Respirators provide protection to workers where engineering controls and work practices cannot significantly reduce or eliminate hazards. These substances can be prolific in the workplace or emergency scenarios and come in many forms, including airborne vapors, gases, dust, fogs, fumes, mists, smoke, or sprays. As such, the appropriate type of respirator must be identified and worn correctly to prevent lung contamination, ensure safe operations, and comply with OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard (29 CFR 1910.134).
Who needs respiratory protection?
According to the OSHA standard, workers are required to use respiratory protection when:
- Working in areas where oxygen levels are or could be insufficient (e.g., excavations, pits, tanks, and other confined spaces).
- There is potential for them to be exposed to harmful levels of chemicals, hazardous gases, or vapors such as arsenic and formaldehyde.
- Performing duties that involve other respiratory hazards, including dust or fine debris such as crystalline silica, airborne biological hazards such as tuberculosis, etc.
Types of Respirators
Respirators certified by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) exist to protect workers from specific hazards they may encounter. There are two main types of respirators, ones that work by removing contaminants from the air and ones that supply clean air to the wearer from another source. The first type of respirators are called Air-purifying respirators (APRs), as they filter out dangerous particles and other harmful contaminants. The latter type are known as Atmosphere-supplying respirators (ASRs), as they serve the wearer by supplying clean air to breathe.
Below is a list of types of respirators starting from the lowest level of protection to the highest.
- Single-strap dust masks (not actually respirators or NIOSH-approved, but can provide a certain level of comfort)
- Approved filtering facepieces (A.K.A.- dust masks, the N95 respirator being the most readily recognizable after the COVID-19 pandemic)
- Half-face respirators (worn over the mouth and nose, containing cartridges that filter certain contaminants)
- Full-face respirators (cover the entire face, also with replaceable filtration cartridges)
- Loose-fitting powered-air-purifying respirators (PAPR, supply purified air through a battery-powered fan and a HEPA filter)
- Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA, provides breathable air via an air tank)
This list is not comprehensive. It is extremely important for employers to make sure that workplaces have been assessed and any respiratory hazards identified before operations commence. This is the only way for workers to be provided with respiratory protection that will counteract the existing (and potential) risk. Before using respirators, workers must be properly trained and evaluated to ensure they are physically capable of using the assigned respirator and that the PPE is the proper fit for them.
How to Comply
Employers must ensure that they are complying with OSHA’s respiratory protection regulation if workers are wearing respirators in the workplace. The following steps will need to be taken to establish a strong respiratory protection program and keep workers safe:
- Identify all existing (and probable) respiratory hazards.
- Determine which types of respiratory protection will be necessary to counter this risk.
- Pay for and provide workers with designated respiratory protection.
- Develop a written program that outlines compliance with the regulation.
- Conduct training, making sure to follow up with workers to assess comprehension.
- Ensure workers are physically fit to wear respirators and use them correctly.
- Establish procedures to clean equipment regularly and store it safely when not in use.
- Require annual fit tests and check that workers are participating.
How EH&S software can help ensure compliance with OSHA’s respiratory protection regulation.
Compliance with OSHA’s respiratory protection regulation is essential to ensure the health of workers exposed to various conditions that could put them at risk. There are several ways that implementing EH&S software can support respiratory protection programs, including
- The time saved in maintaining medical surveillance programs with automated checklists, reporting, training notifications, etc.
- Tracking respiratory protection training, respirator fit dates, and inspection records through a central database.
- Flagging tasks and job roles that may be subject to respiratory protection and/or medical surveillance in hazard assessments.
- Standardization and digitization of workflows and records.
However, though EH&S software can be transformative for safety programs, it is still a tool. Every part of an efficient respiratory protection program can contribute to the overall success of the organization but is also dependent on the attitude and understanding of those who would use them. As seasoned safety professionals know, unless workers are aware of the risks they are taking when performing certain duties and the ways that respirators, following the training, utilizing software, etc. are actively helping them, they can try to cut corners. This not only negatively affects compliance records, but the people these tools are meant to protect.
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