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When a worker is exposed to airborne hazards on the job, adverse health effects may return home with them. Respiratory protection is more than just an onsite precaution. It’s a preventative step workers and employers must take to protect and preserve a person’s health today. On jobsites where airborne hazards such as dust, fumes, mists or vapors are or may be present, a worker’s respiratory health must be considered.

Company personnel responsible for safety and health are required to understand and comply with standards set by state and federal regulators. Per OSHA respirator standard 29 CFR 1910.134, every respiratory protection program requires a program administrator and must include documentation and written jobsite-specific procedures for:

  • exposure assessment;
  • hazard control evaluation;
  • medical evaluation;
  • respiratory selection;
  • fit testing;
  • respiratory training;
  • respiratory maintenance; and
  • program evaluation.
Although other requirements might exist at a state, local or company level, let’s take a brief look at each one of these OSHA-required elements.

1. Exposure Assessment

OSHA requires employers to conduct exposure assessments and evaluate airborne workplace hazards. This assessment and evaluation may be done by an independent consultant or appropriately trained in-house personnel. They need to determine:

  • what hazards are present;
  • worker exposure levels; and
  • whether those levels are acceptable.
Any time there are changes in the workplace that could result in new or altered exposures (such as new equipment, processes, products, control measures or seasonal changes), a new assessment needs to be conducted.

2. Hazard Control Evaluation

There are a number of steps to take if the assessment shows worker exposures to airborne contaminants are outside the Permissible Exposure Limits (PEL) established by OSHA, or other applicable occupational exposure limits the company follows and that are lower than the PEL (e.g., trade associations, professional societies or internally set limits). First, the safety and health person must see if the exposure can be controlled through engineering controls (e.g., elimination of the hazardous material, substitution to a less toxic material or local exhaust ventilation to remove the contaminant from the workplace), or administrative controls (e.g., use of relief workers, rotation of workers or work breaks). If there is no way to effectively reduce the worker’s exposure to acceptable levels, respiratory protection must be provided.

3. Respiratory Selection

Most respirator manufacturers have online selection guides that can assist safety administrators in selecting an appropriate respirator for the identified hazard. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Respirator Selection Logic 2004 is another aid in proper respirator selection (https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2005-100/).

When choosing a respirator, it’s important to consider other protective equipment a worker must wear. Considering multiple options for not only respiratory protection, but  other personal protective equipment helps ensure the worker is comfortable and protected. All the equipment a worker wears must be compatible to be most effective.

4. Medical Evaluation

OSHA requires employers to provide a respirator medical evaluation to a worker before they can wear a respirator. This typically consists of a questionnaire that considers medical conditions, workplace conditions and hazards that could affect the worker’s ability to safely wear a respirator. A licensed health care professional evaluates the employee’s responses and advises whether the worker appears to be medically able to wear the class of respirator being considered.

The employer must reevaluate the worker’s ability to safely wear a respirator when:

  • signs or symptoms are reported that may affect a worker’s ability to safely use a respirator;
  • a physician, supervisor or respiratory program administrator requests an evaluation;
  • information during fit testing or program evaluation indicate a need for re-evaluation; or
  • changes in workplace conditions, such as temperatures, increase the burden on the worker’s level of exertion or equipment needs.

5. Fit Testing

Respirators require a proper fit to be able to provide protection. There are two types of fit tests.

  • Qualitative: A pass/fail test that relies on the employee’s senses using one of four OSHA-accepted test agents and procedures: Isoamyl acetate, Saccharin, Bitrex® or Irritant smoke.
  • Quantitative: This test uses an instrument to measure leakage around the face seal and produces a numerical result called a “fit factor” to quantify the effectiveness of the respirator.

6. Respirator Training

OSHA mandates that workers be trained annually to reinforce the importance of respiratory protection, along with proper use and care of their equipment. Ideally, this training should be onsite and include having the worker demonstrate how to properly fit and wear their respiratory protection equipment. At a minimum, training should cover:

  • why respirators are needed;
  • what protection a respirator can or cannot offer;
  • how to properly inspect, put on, take off and use a respirator;
  • how to perform a “user seal check;”
  • what to do in emergency situations, including what to do if the respirator does not work properly;
  • how to recognize medical signs and symptoms that may limit or prevent workers from using a respirator;
  • how improper fit, use or maintenance can reduce effectiveness;
  • maintenance and storage procedures; and
  • the requirements for federal/state OSHA respiratory protection standards.

7. Respiratory Maintenance

Respirators should be inspected before and after each use and during cleaning. Users must follow the manufacturer’s instructions for specific inspection, cleaning and maintenance procedures. Respirators that are used only in emergency situations must be inspected at least monthly and before and after every use. Consider factors such as:

  • respirator function;
  • tightness and connection of parts;
  • pliability of elastomeric parts; and
  • the condition of various parts, including the face piece, head straps, valves, connecting tube, cartridges, canisters or filters.

8. Program Evaluation

The respiratory protection administrator should examine all elements and records of a respiratory program regularly to make sure tests and inspections are up to date. Anytime working conditions change, such as a move to a different environment or introduction of new chemicals or hazards, the respiratory protection program and the equipment being used must be reevaluated.

Another key part of ongoing program evaluation is talking to workers who are using respiratory equipment to help ensure respirators are meeting their needs and that workers understand and follow procedures for using and maintaining them. It is important to make a record of evaluations and findings, to note any deficiencies, and to document all necessary corrective measures. All of these observations and records help when updating a written respiratory protection program.

Managing an effective respiratory protection program keeps companies compliant with relevant regulations and is the best way to help ensure workers are protected from respiratory hazards.

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