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An estimated 2.3 million workers in the United States are potentially exposed to dust containing crystalline silica. Approximately 90 percent of those workers are employed in the construction industry. 

The silica hazard exists when various constructions activities such as sawing, grinding, drilling crushing, etc. generates fine respirable dust that is released into the air. According to OSHA, in 2014 more workers died from silicosis than in fires or from being caught in or crushed by collapsing materials, such as in trench and structure collapses. These deaths could be easily preventable with respiratory protection. 

If respirable dust is visible in a work area, respiratory protection should be worn by workers in the area. 

How is technology changing the PPE industry?

Technology is enabling leading respiratory solution providers to offer a higher level of protection with greater worker comfort at a very affordable price point. 
For example, powered respirators (PAPR’s) have traditionally been bulky and uncomfortable with large waist-mounted packs, hoses and helmets. In addition, PAPR solutions have been very expensive to purchase as well as maintain, requiring large amounts of replacement parts and servicing thus limiting their adoption by users and employers. 

Today, PAPR solutions are available that eliminate all the hoses, backpacks and bulkiness but still provide the high protection factors of old-school powered solutions. In addition, these modern PAPR solutions utilize the latest technologies to reduce weight and size, increase battery life and provide a comfortable experience for the wearer (even when in working in tight spaces) all at an affordable cost and without the need to purchase large amounts of replacement parts. 

When does it make sense to invest in new respiratory equipment?

Construction and other companies who have a duty of care to their workers exposed to silica, should evaluate these new respiratory solutions based on the following criteria:

  1. Reduce Silica Exposure Risks. Workers exposed to silica on a regular basis will require protection and with a high APF (see OSHA guidelines). By adopting respiratory protection with an APF of 50 or higher the business can be assured they are complying with OSHA silica standards and providing the best practice levels of protection for their workers. 
  2. Improve Working Productivity. In hot or humid worker environments the investment in new and modern respiratory equipment can yield big dividends on multiple fronts. For example, providing the worker with an on-demand powered airflow creates a portable fan for the worker by pushing cool fresh air into the mask and greater worker comfort with longer working effort and adoption and safety compliance. Furthermore, healthier workers mean less days off work, critical for construction projects on a timeline.
  3. Minimize inventory, Repairs and Servicing. With tight margins, construction or similar firms can spend large amounts on consumables, replacement parts and servicing equipment. Modern and technologically advanced solutions offer lower cost of ownership and are more reliable and minimize downtime.
What to consider when evaluating respiratory protection? 

There are three important points that should factor into the respiratory selection process: 

  1. Hazard Levels. The OSHA silica standards call for different minimum APF ratings based on the types of jobs being performed and the level of ventilation where the job is taking place. Realistically, to make sure workers are protected for any situation, it is recommended to use a respirator with a minimum APF of 50. 
  2. Compliance and Training. Regulatory compliance is important, but employee acceptance and use is everything. After being properly trained and fit tested, if a worker finds their respiratory protection uncomfortable, tight, hot or is getting in the way of their work they are at high risk of not using respiratory protection at all and/or incorrectly utilizing the respiratory equipment provided. When evaluating equipment, it is important to know the workers and the conditions where the equipment will be used. For example, in dusty, hot or humid environments a disposable N95 mask can become hot, moist, clogged and collapse. By providing the worker an on-demand powered airflow the respirator can act like a portable fan pushing fresh air into the mask cooling the worker and is small enough to allow high mobility and portability. At the end of the day, workers finish the shift with a clean face and no grit in their nose of mouth – reinforcing the message that the mask is protecting them. This will lead to much greater worker adoption and compliance. 
  3. Total Cost of Ownership. Disposable masks may not be an ‘inexpensive and easy’ solution when considering total cost of ownership, productivity and safety liability. Based on case studies at workplaces with modest respirator use, the annual total cost of ownership (per wearer) for a disposable N95 mask with an exhalation valve can be high, especially when each worker goes through as many as two to four masks in an eight-hour shift. This may be higher in hot/humid or very dusty conditions. Companies may find modern powered respirators a more cost-effective alternative in these situations.
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