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Respiratory Protection – Understanding OSHA Standard 1910.134

Employers must provide workers with proper personal protective equipment (PPE), according to OSHA Standard 1910.132. Some types of PPE like hardhats or steel-toed boots are less complicated than others like respirators, though.

Respiratory protection is a class of PPE that contains many varieties of equipment, and OSHA has dedicated a separate section of its code—1910.134—to regulations for respiratory protection. This type of protection is quite common: the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimates that five percent of U.S. workers and 20 percent of workplaces require some kind of respiratory protection some of the time.

While respiratory protection may be complex, employers and safety managers can create an effective respiratory program that is compliant with OSHA standards by taking a few keys steps: identifying respiratory hazards, selecting equipment, fit testing, training and maintenance. In this post we’ll take a closer look at these key program elements so you feel more comfortable handling a respiratory protection program.

Who’s In Charge? 

OSHA requires that any workplaces with respiratory hazards like dust, chemical gases and vapors, infectious agents or low oxygen levels have a respiratory protection program in place. This involves having a written program documenting details of respiratory plans for your workplace, and the program must have a qualified administrator. A safety manager often fills this role. 

Hazard Identification

The first step to complying with most OSHA standards is a hazard assessment. For respiratory hazards, this will involve identifying what machines, chemicals and tasks involve potentially harmful dusts, vapors, gases and other substances that could damage the lungs or make employees sick. This may involve testing the air quality in multiple locations in your facility. Keep in mind that the type of contaminant and its concentration will impact the type of respiratory protection you select later on, so make a detailed list of dangerous substances in the air.

Once you’ve identified hazards, you should determine if it’s possible to use engineering or administrative controls to reduce each hazard. Sometimes it’s possible to change the way a machine operates (an engineering control) or change the length of time an employee works in a particular area (an administrative control) to eliminate the need for PPE. PPE like respirators should always be the last line of defense against a hazard. 

Respirator Selection 

Despite efforts to change the workplace to reduce respiratory hazards, in many cases respirators are still necessary. So what exactly is a respirator? 

According to NIOSH, a respirator is a device worn on the face that covers at least the mouth and nose, and it’s used to reduce the risk that the user will breath in dangerous substances. 

Some respirators are fairly simple, while others are much more complex. Respirators fall into two main categories: air-purifying respirators (APRs) and atmosphere-supplying respirators (ASRs). As their name suggests, APRs filter the air. Some of these devices filter particles like dust, while others filter chemicals and gases. On the other hand, ASRs provide the user with an external source of clean air. Some of these supply air from a remote source (called airline respirators), and some are attached to portable air tanks (called self-contained breathing apparatuses, or SCBAs).

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Employers can select from a variety of respirators and respirator filters to protect their employees. Photo: OSHA

Here’s a brief overview of the types of respirators available:

Air-purifying Respirators:

  • Filtering Facepiece Respirators – These devices look similar to surgical masks and cover the nose and mouth. They are commonly referred to as N95 respirators (meaning they are NIOSH-certified to filter 95 percent of particles) and should be disposed of after use. They are most commonly used to filter dust.
  • Elastomeric Facepiece Respirators – These reusable devices employ cartridges or canisters designed to filter the contaminant in question. These parts are replaced periodically. These respirators are commonly used to filter gases and vapors and come in either half or full faces varieties.
  • Powered Air-Purifying Respirators – To make it easier for users to breath, this type of respirator uses a battery-powered blower to move air through the filter.

Atmosphere-Supplying Respirators:

  • Airline Respirators – These devices supply air from a remote source, usually through a tube or hose.
  • Self-Contained Breathing Apparatuses – These respirators are attached to portable air tanks that supply the user with clean air.

Fit Testing

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Tight-fitting respirators must fit snuggly. Photo: OSHA

Respirators are trickier than other types of PPE; if they don’t fit properly, it’s unlikely they’ll provide users with any protection. Consequently, OSHA requires employers to provide fit testing for many types of respirators. Many of the devices listed above come in tight-fitting or loose-fitting varieties. With loose-fitting varieties, outside air seeping past the edges of the respirator’s mask isn’t a concern because the device usually covers the whole head. Tight-fitting respirators, though, pose a risk if they don’t fit snuggly. 

To test for proper fit of a tight-fitting respirator, either a qualitative or quantitative test can be used. For the former, users wear their masks and must determine whether they smell a gas that is released in the air outside of the mask. For the latter test, a machine is used to measure whether air is leaking around the respirator. OSHA accepts either test method. Fit tests should be performed at least once every 12 months to make sure masks still fit and function properly. 

Additionally, anyone using a respirator must receive a medical examination from a professional to determine whether the person’s health is good enough for respirator use. (Heart disease, lung conditions and claustrophobia can all prevent a person from wearing a respirator.)

Train Employees

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Perhaps this goes without saying, but because respirators are not always simple to use, employees must all receive training in how to use their respirators before wearing them on the job. This training must include what hazards employees will be exposed to, how to put on and remove the respirator and how to maintain it.

You can also place safety signs and labels in areas where respiratory protection is required as a reminder to employees that they should be wearing PPE.

Maintain Respirators

Filtering facepiece respirators are typically discarded after use, but most other types of respirators will need to be properly maintained. This includes regular cleaning schedules, daily disinfections, procedures for repairing respirators (or reporting the need for repairs) and instructions for storage. Respirators should be stored in a clean, organized area (not in the workspace) to prevent damage.

Be sure to include your respirator maintenance procedures in your written respiratory program, too.

Main Points to Remember

Complying with a regulation like OSHA’s respiratory protection standard takes effort, but it can be done with proper planning and procedures. Keep these main points in mind as you plan or evaluate your own program: 

  • The respirator must fit the hazard. Assess hazards first, then find a respirator that will mitigate the contaminant that’s present in your workplace.
  • Make sure particle-filtering respirators are all NIOSH certified (look for the N95 stamp or another level of NIOSH certification).
  • Fit test all employees who will use tight-fitting respirators (and retest every 12 months).
  • Have a medical professional conduct health evaluations for all employees who use respirators.
  • Set clear maintenance procedures for respirators to ensure these devices continue to protect employees.
  • Write it all down: have a written program available for employees to consult.

Do you have more questions about complying with OSHA’s respiratory protection standard? Consult OSHA’s respiratory protection resources. For more information about the types of respirators, consult the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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