How to Get Started with Your Respiratory Protection Program: Part 2

Like canned food, duct tape, and Jeeps, respirators owe their modern-day usage to wartime. Before World War I, respiratory protection wasn’t a priority, despite thousands dying from respiratory issues. During WWI, soldiers were given gas masks to protect against chemical warfare. 

In 1919, the U.S. Bureau of Mines implemented the very first respirator certification program, and only a few months later it certified the first respirator.

Today, masks and respirators are a core element of PPE. They even have their own group: Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE). It’s not enough to simply purchase RPE and give them to your workers to wear. Each company should set up a Respiratory Protection Program under the umbrella of its PPE management program that includes guidelines on choosing, using, maintaining, and replacing RPE. 

Did you miss Part 1 of our guide? Start here for more on the different types of respirators.

A Quick Introduction to Respiratory Protection Programs

A comprehensive respiratory protection program begins by establishing two key elements:

  • the types of contaminants 
  • the amount or level of exposure

From there, you decide on the correct type of RPE that will fully protect your workers and implement training programs to educate on usage, storage, and maintenance. 

Because it’s a type of PPE, RPE naturally fits into any PPE Management Program. If your PPE hazard assessment found that some of your hazards include airborne hazards, you write in guidelines, checklist, and training for RPE. 

The use of masks and respirators in the industrial setting helps protect workers from hazards in the air. But a mask or respirator is not adequate as the first line of defense. 

In the hierarchy of controls, PPE is always the last line of defense. You should implement other safety measures first, including elimination, substitution, engineering, and administration, to try to eliminate airborne hazards. When those fail to remove all airborne hazards, masks and respirators provide much-needed protection. 

Why Do You Need a Respiratory Protection Program?

Every workplace has an obligation to provide a safe work environment for each employee and a respiratory protection program is often a part of the plan to offer that safe atmosphere. As per 29 CFR 1910.134, when you must provide respiratory equipment to comply with OSHA standards, you must also put a written respiratory protection plan into place. 

Respiratory protection programs help reduce workplace illnesses and injuries. When a worker becomes ill or injured, the company loses money. The company can also lose money through other means, such as higher workers compensation premiums or a lack of competitiveness due to a high experience modification rating.

What Standards Apply to Respiratory Protection?

Standards that companies should follow in regards to RPE usage come from a variety of industry organizations. Common RPE standards include:

  • 29 CFR 1910.134: This standard from OSHA outlines all the requirements for employers and employees in regard to RPE usage and the requirements for setting up a respiratory protection program including naming a program administrator and providing RPE, training, and fit-testing for free to all employees. OSHA also has an entire webpage for its Respiratory Protection Standard that includes guidance, training videos, and other resources.  
  • ANSI/ASSP Z88.2: Employees use this standard from ANSI/ASSP to find the minimum accepted practices of respirator use. It also offers guidance on choosing the right respirator, using and maintaining respirators, and setting up, implementing, and evaluating a respirator program.  
  • National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) 42 CFR Part 84: NIOSH sets its own recommendations for respirator use, laid out in regulation 42 CFR Part 84. These regulations set up the requirements manufacturers must meet to receive NIOSH approval. The guide also offers information on choosing and using NIOSH-certified respirators. 

Tip: Streamline your OSHA compliance by running Safesite’s OSHA Respiratory Program Basics meeting.

Assessing Your Workers’ Exposure to Contaminants

A Respiratory Protection Program starts with performing an exposure assessment. An exposure assessment determines what types of airborne contaminants your employees are exposed to each day. 

Once complete, the next step is to determine the level of each containment present, called the exposure level. The exposure level is typically measured in parts per million or milligrams per cubic meter. 

Once you have your level of contaminants figured out, compare it to OSHA’s occupational exposure limit (OEL) or permissible exposure limit (PEL) charts.

Note:  If you identify a respiratory hazard, log it with Safesite. By raising hazards in real-time, you can instantly set and track a resolution time, notify responsible parties, and cut the time needed to resolve a respiratory hazard by 62%.

OSHA requires that all respirators have approval from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). They must also come with an Assigned Protection Factor (APF). The APF tells the user how much protection the respirator offers; a respirator with an APF of 10 offers protection against 10 times the normal permissible exposure limit. 

So, how do you know what APF level you need? The hazard ratio tells you what APF level you need. You find the hazard ratio by dividing your exposure level by the exposure limit set by OSHA. For example, the carbon monoxide PEL is 5,000 ppm. If a company found its exposure level was 50,000 ppm, its hazard ratio would be 10. It would need to look for respirators with an APF of at least 10.

Choosing the Appropriate Respirators

Picking the right respirator for the job requires taking into consideration several different factors. These typically include the APF level, employees’ health, job design, and other safety equipment worn at the same time. 

When choosing respirators for your company, the factors you should look at include:

  • Equipment – Every respirator should be CE-marked, meaning it conforms with health, safety, and environmental protection standards. It should also be the right fit for the task, and provide adequate protection. 
  • Work environment – Speak to your employees about their experience in their work environment to be sure the respirator you pick will work. It’s also helpful for the safety manager or other members of the management team to visit the site to experience the work atmosphere for themselves. 
  • Task-related – Your workers can give insight on how a respirator will affect the way they perform their work tasks. They can give information on visibility, communications, and mobility requirements so that you can choose respirators that won’t impede their tasks. Other things to look for to decide if a respirator is a good fit are the tools workers use, the accessories they wear, and how long they have to wear the respirator. 
  • Individual factors—Each worker is different and so each respirator will fit them differently. Facial hair, glasses, and other physical characteristics can affect how a respirator works and fits. Wearing a respirator can be dangerous for certain individuals, including those with asthma, high blood pressure, and other underlying conditions. 

Types of Respiratory Equipment

Respirators fall into two main categories, air-purifying respirators (APRs) and atmosphere-supplying respirators (ASRs). The product you choose depends on the results of your exposure assessment and the other factors considered above.

Let’s take a look at the features of the available respiratory equipment.

APRs purify the hazardous air before the user breathes it in and come in three varieties: 

Filtering Facepiece Respirators (FFR)

  • Disposable 
  • Only effective against particles
  • N series (including the well-known N95 version) are not resistant to oil, R series is somewhat resistant, and P series is resistant to oil

Elastomeric Facepiece Respirators

  • Two variations: half-face and full-face
  • Reusable, come with replaceable cartridges and filters
  • Protects against particles, vapors, and gas
  • Full-face version also offers eye protection

Powered Air-Purifying Respirators (PAPR)

  • Battery-powered 
  • Reusable, come with replaceable cartridges and filters
  • Loose-fitting version can be used with facial hair, tight-fitting cannot
  • Protects against particles, vapors, and gas
  • Offer eye protection and low breathing resistance

ASRs provide a supply of clean air for the user to breathe. The three types of atmosphere-supplying respirators are supplied-air respirators, self-contained breathing apparatuses, and combination SARs. 

Supplied-Air Respirators

  • Connect to a free-standing cylinder of breathable air
  • Lightweight 
  • Limited in mobility 
  • Come with hoods, helmets, or tight-fitting facepieces
  • Deliver air by continuous-flow, demand, or pressure-demand

Self-Contained Breathing Apparatuses

  • Contains portable air supply
  • APF of 10,000
  • Short service life
  • Open-circuit SCBAs have full facepieces, air supply located in a pressurized cylinder
  • Closed-circuit SCBAs recycle breathed air by replacing carbon dioxide with oxygen

Combination SARs

  • Combines SARs and SCBAs
  • Have backup air supply for if primary air supply fails

What You Need to Know About Dust Masks vs Respirators

Although it covers your face and nose like a respirator, a dust mask (or comfort mask) does not provide the same level of protection as a respirator. 

Dust masks do not protect the wearer against breathing in particles, gases, or vapors. Additionally, respirators are governed by different standards, while dust masks and face coverings do not have to adhere to any industry standards.

Key Parts of Your OSHA-Compliant Respiratory Protection Program

When an employee uses or maintains a respirator incorrectly, it essentially makes the RPE worthless and can put the worker in danger. That’s why it’s so important to provide employees with thorough and comprehensive training in using and maintaining their respirators. 

Any mistake can give the wearer a false sense of protection and ultimately cause work-related illness and injury. Misuse of respiratory protection can include choosing the wrong RPE, picking RPE that is incompatible with existing PPE, wearing or using RPE incorrectly, and using poorly maintained RPE. 

OSHA Training Requirements

It is the employer’s responsibility to provide comprehensive training that covers the proper use and maintenance of respirators. The training should be specific to each type of respirator the employee uses. After completing training, the employee should be well-versed in how the respirator works, why a respirator is necessary for that particular task, and all the capabilities and limitations of the respirator. Training should also cover:

  • How to put on and take off the respirator
  • Maintenance and storage
  • What to do if the respirator malfunctions
  • Medical signs and symptoms of someone in distress because of a malfunctioning respirator

You can run meetings, manage training, and record attendance all in one place using Safesite’s Safety Meetings and Toolbox Talks feature.  

Pulmonary Function Testing and Respirator Fit Testing Requirements

Wearing a respirator places extra strain on the lungs and can be dangerous to those with high blood pressure, asthma, or other underlying conditions. To protect these workers, part of respirator training should include conducting Pulmonary Function Testing (spirometry). This testing determines if workers have the lung capacity to safely use RPEs. 

All employees using a respirator should go through fit-testing to make sure the mask fits correctly and will protect the worker. Fit-testing should be redone every 12 months to make sure the respirator still fits correctly. It should also be done anytime the employee gets a new model, brand, or size of the respirator and anytime the wearer’s face changes from weight loss or gain. Two types of fit testing exist:

  • Qualitative: The employee puts on the respirator and puts a hood over their head. A nebulizer releases a sweet or bitter substance and the employee says whether or not they can smell the substance. This method is less expensive but not always reliable. 
  • Quantitative: A machine measures the actual amount of leakage. It is more expensive, but is also more accurate and reliable than the qualitative, as the qualitative method can be skewed by human error. 

Each employee should be aware that facial hair, jewelry, or eye wear might negatively affect the fit of the respirator and make adjustments as necessary. 

Respirator Stock Inspections

Before each use, the worker should check that the respirator is clean and in good condition and report any defects to their manager. The wearer should look for deterioration in plastic or rubber parts and check any connecting points for leaks. At a minimum, SCBAs should be checked monthly to be sure the cylinders are charged. 

While using the respirator, the employee should perform seal checks to be sure the respirator is working properly.

You should also perform routine inspections on all respirators in your PPE stock. These inspections should check for cleanliness and sanitation, wear and tear, and expiration dates. If any respirators need repair, only an experienced person should do the work and they should only use parts designed for that respirator. 

With Safesite, you can use OSHA performance testing inspections from our safety template library or create and update your own RPE inspection checklist for each respirator to keep the state of your respirator stock up-to-date and share it within your organization with the tap of a button.

Respirator Cleaning, Maintenance and Storage 

NIOSH guidelines require all RPE manufacturers to include instructions for maintenance and care of approved respirators. Everyone who uses the respiratory equipment should read the manufacturer’s guide and instructions and ask questions if something about the usage or maintenance isn’t clear. 

Cleaning and disinfecting schedules depend on the respirator type. Any emergency-use respirators should be cleaned and disinfected immediately after each use so they are ready for an emergency. When cleaning and disinfecting, be sure to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations, as some cleaners are too harsh and can damage the respirator parts. 

Storing RPEs correctly assures a longer shelf life. Employers should provide adequate storage options that protect against dust, sunlight, heat, extreme cold, moisture, and chemicals. RPEs should not be folded or bent but stored in a neutral position to avoid damage and deformation. 

Proper maintenance also includes changing the filters or cartridges when needed. 

Keeping RPE Safety Records

Recordkeeping is a big part of a respiratory protection program. These records allow future managers to see where the program started and how it evolved over the years. 

Records should include documentation of any hazard audits and the risk assessment. It’s also important to include fit-test certifications and other evidence of adequacy and suitability, records of repair and maintenance, and evidence of effectiveness. Finally, your safety records should detail all the training programs you offer to employees.  

Periodically you should review your respiratory protection program, looking for ways to improve the program and strengthen weak points. Standards and guidelines change and evolve and you’ll want to incorporate these changes into your protection program.

Managing Your Respiratory Budget and Avoiding Counterfeits

As a manager, it’s critical that you provide enough money in the budget for PPE and manage the PPE inventory effectively. Having a PPE management plan, such as this one from Safesite, is a good place to start. This type of plan will be sure you’ve covered all the bases, from creating a safety committee to manage the plan to writing usage guidelines. 

When shopping for PPE, price should be a consideration, but shouldn’t be the only one. You’ll want to be sure you’re getting a quality product that meets the job design and comfort requirements, too. You can often get a better price by shopping around and buying from several different suppliers before settling on a product. 

You don’t need to keep huge stocks of RPE on hand, but do keep a large enough inventory that gives you lead time to order more when you run out. It’s helpful to keep an RPE inventory system, just like you would keep for supplies, orders, etc. 

Keep an eye on industry demand and other outside factors that might impact your ability to get the PPE you need. For example, the Covid-19 pandemic created supply issues as skyrocketing overnight demand and supply chain interruptions meant you couldn’t get the necessary PPE. 

OSHA requires that all respirators come with NIOSH-approval, which has led to counterfeit respirators coming onto the market. The CDC provides guidelines to help determine whether a respirator has NIOSH-approval. All NIOSH-approved respirators have an approved label on or in the packaging and abbreviated approval on the respirator. You can also verify approval numbers on the NIOSH Certified Equipment List (CEL)

Respiratory Protection Programs Protect Workers and Organizations

When workers face respiratory hazards, OSHA requires an effective and comprehensive respiratory protection program as part of your PPE management plan. The program should outline how to assess your employees’ RPE needs, choosing the correct RPE, and training employees on proper RPE usage and maintenance.

Safesite makes creating and managing a respiratory protection program simpler by allowing you to raise hazards, run inspections, and train workers within a single, always free program.

Team Safesite

By Team Safesite

We're a group of safety and tech professionals united in our desire to make every workplace safer. We keep a pulse on the latest regulations, standards, and industry trends in safety and write about them here on our blog.

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