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What you need to know: Respiratory 101

A rescue worker wears a respirator in a smokey, toxic atmosphere.  Image show the importance of protection readiness and safety.Respirators are a worker’s first line of defense against areas with insufficient oxygen, harmful dusts, fogs, smokes, mists, gases, vapors, and sprays. Without the proper protection, these can all lead to fatal situations. Workers that have been exposed to these hazards have suffered from lung impairment, diseases, cancer, and even death in some instances. OSHA estimates that nearly 5 million workers are required to wear respirators in 1.3 million workplaces around the U.S. They claim that if we had more compliance with the OSHA Respiratory Protection Standard, we could avoid hundreds of deaths and thousands of illnesses annually.

How does a respirator protect me?

Respirators protect an individual in two different ways. The first is by removing the contaminants from the air. These types of respirators include particulate respirators, which filter out airborne particles and air-purifying respirators with cartridges/canisters that filter out the chemicals and/or gasses. The other way respirators protect an individual is by supplying clean air from another source to the person who is wearing it. These types of respirators include airline respirators, which take compressed air from another source and supply it to the user and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), which has its own air supply.

OSHA’s eTool

OSHA has a dedicated eTool just for respiratory protection. Its purpose is to help instruct users on the proper selection of respiratory protection and the development of change schedules for gas/vapor cartridges. The eTool is also designed to help individuals and organizations comply with the OSHA respirator standard.

Medical Requirements

It is important to note that employees do need to be medically cleared in order to wear respirators. This is due to the fact that the simple nature of wearing a respirator places a burden on the employee who uses one. The negative pressure that respirators create restricts breathing. This can lead to claustrophobia and self-contained breathing apparatuses are heavy. These conditions can have a big impact on the health of an employee who wears respirators. Because of these risks, a physician or licensed health care professional needs to evaluate employees in order to determine what conditions they can safely wear respirators.

 Terms to know

The following is a list of terms provided by OSHA that you should know if you are using respirators:

  • Air-purifying respirator- A respirator with an air-purifying filter, cartridge, or canister that removes specific air contaminants by passing ambient air through the air purifying element.
  • Assigned protection factor (APF)- The workplace level of respiratory protection that a respirator or class of respirators is expected to provide to employees when the employer implements a continuing, effective respiratory protection program as specified by this section.
  • Atmosphere-supplying respirator- A respirator that supplies the respirator user with the breathing air from a source independent of the ambient atmosphere, and includes supplied-air respirators (SARs) and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) units.
  • Canister or cartridge- The container which includes a filter, sorbent, or catalyst, or combination of these, which is the tool used to remove the specific contaminants from the air passed through the canister.
  • Demand respirator- This is an atmosphere-supplying respirator that admits breathing air through the facepiece only when a negative pressure is created inside the facepiece by inhalation.

For more definitions on specific terms that you should know that apply to respirator use click here.

Keys to developing an effective respiratory protection program

The main objective of a respiratory protection  program is to help employees avoid an occupational illness that resulted from exposure to air contaminated with harmful dusts, fogs, fumes, mists, gases, smokes, vapors, or sprays. This requires a program administrator to be responsible for the program. This person is to be the know all of respiratory protection and be able to successfully supervise the program.

Regardless of the size of your organization, all respiratory programs should emphasize training. It is important that employees are aware that a respirator does not completely eliminate the hazard, however it is there only line of defense. If a respirator was to fail, the user could be exposed to the substance they are trying to avoid. In order to reduce the risk of exposure, the respirator must fit properly and be maintained in a clean and serviceable condition.

Thus, employers and employees need to understand the respirator’s purpose and limitations. A user should never, under any circumstances, alter or remove a respirator even if it’s for a short time, regardless of its comfort level.

OSHA recommends that an effective respirator program covers the following:

  • Written worksite specific procedures
  • Program evaluation
  • Selection of an appropriate respirator approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
  • Training
  • Fit testing
  • Inspection, cleaning, maintenance, and storage
  • Medical evaluations
  • Work area surveillance
  • Air quality standards

Lastly, it should be noted that whenever OSHA standards or employers require respirator use, there must be a complete respiratory protection program.

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