The good, the bad and the ugly of respiratory protection

August 5, 2009
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You’ve been cruising along as an EHS professional. Daily department meetings, weekly cross-functional committee meetings, a recordable here, a near-miss there, but never any lost time. Suddenly your company takes on a new production process involving the mixing and handling of hazardous chemicals and you’re in charge of worker safety, hygiene, and compliance.

Where do you start?

Hire a consultant? In this economy? “Isn’t that why you were hired?”, you can almost hear your boss scoff.

Buy respirators ASAP? Half Face, Full Face, Air-Purifying Respirators (APR), Powered-Air Purifying Respirators (PAPR), Supplied-Air Respirators (SAR), self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA)? With so many choices, you begin to feel worse, not better.

There’s no time to engineer and install the latest and greatest in ventilation. Production begins next month, and don’t forget about the price tag.

OK, clear your head and formulate your plan of action.

Going into action
The first step is to analyze the hazards. You collect MSDS sheets from the chemicals to be used in the new process. Next, you refer to your NIOSH pocket guide to chemical hazards and your ACGIH® guide to Threshold Limit Values (TLVs®) TLVs to determine your exposure limits and recommended PPE. Then you contact your favorite air sampling test lab to measure the airborne concentration levels of the hazards.

While you are waiting for the results, you analyze the job activities to be performed as part of this new process. You look at everything, not just the respiratory hazards, and develop your detailed plans to ensure safety for each worksite job-specific duty as required by OSHA.

You consider all the engineering and administrative controls that are feasible, and when the air quality results return you conclude that you will need to outfit the workers with respiratory protection.

Comparing the lab results to the OSHA Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) and ACGIH TLVs you determine the airborne concentrations range between 20 and 50 times the PEL. You recall from previous experience that the assigned protection factor (APF) required must be equal to or greater than the ratio of the exposure level divided by the PEL, so you will need a respiratory protection with an APF of at least 50. You consult the OSHA APF table and see that half mask APRs have only an APF of 10. Now you are ready to outfit your workforce in full face APRs, right?

The bad
You could select the respirators by yourself in a vacuum and simply train and issue them to the workers. It’s human nature to resist change, and this resistance becomes amplified when it comes to wearing an item of PPE.

Or, you could specify what type of respirator meets your minimum standards and give the responsibility to your purchasing department. Obviously your purchasing department houses the expertise in getting the best value for items purchased, but you are responsible for having the expertise to select the most appropriate respirator for the application.

The ugly
You ultimately decide to select a full-face APR. The respirators arrive and you begin to train the employees and issue them the PPE (after the required medical evaluation). One worker complains he will now have to shave his beard. Another complains he is too hot. Another complains his is uncomfortable. Another questions whether he even needs respiratory protection. Still another wonders if he has enough respiratory protection. Frustrated, they vow to stop work until they can voice their concerns to management. Equally frustrated, you go back to your office to regroup.

The good
Back in your office, your mind suddenly remembers some of the war stories from your colleagues who have swum in these waters before. Your stomach begins to turn as you realize you’ve been repeating their past sins instead of learning from their experience.

You call a meeting with the workers from the new process area. You start from the beginning explaining all the hazards of the job they will now be performing. You educate them on the appropriate standards and regulations. You show them pictures of your wife and kids to convey to them that you too are a human being and that you want them to go home healthy and safely to their families each night.

You then lay out the options available to them with regard to the appropriate PPE for the application.

You explain the pros and cons of APRs vs. PAPRs vs. SARs. APRs have the lowest initial investment but also have the lowest APF and comfort while requiring fit testing (and the aforementioned facial hair shaving). PAPRs can be outfitted with tight fitting masks or loose fitting hoods which can increase comfort and eliminate fit testing but require a more significant up-front investment. SARs have the same headtop choices as PAPRs and offer cooling tubes that reduce the air temperature in the respirator by up to 30 degrees and do not require any cartridges (or the requisite accompanying cartridge changeout schedules). However, SARs require a compressed air source or an ambient air pump both and an air supply hose that tethers the worker.

The beautiful
The team decides that they want to pursue PAPRs. You contact three manufacturers for demos and trial evaluations. You and your team learn that PAPR technology has advanced to the point where the blowers are smaller and lighter than ever. Batteries can be tucked into an on-board compartment and are made from the latest chemistries such as NiMH and Lithium Polymer. One even displays its remaining capacity by lighting up LEDs at the push of a button.

Some models offer alarms for low flow and/or low battery. Some offer control mechanisms that are akin to a car’s cruise control that ensure the flow of the PAPR remains constant.

Your team selects their favorite PAPR and purchasing negotiates a favorable price. You justify it to management based upon total cost of ownership — including elimination of fit testing, higher protection, and lower heat stress. Best of all, you are sitting in the plant manager’s office explaining to him in front of the human resources manager why a whole crew has stopped production in their area.

The moral of the story
In order to have a successful implementation of a respiratory program you must get the affected workers involved. Sure that seems obvious, but surprisingly many miss this point or misunderstand it. To some they think that they are getting their workforce involved by forming a team to give input into the training and implementation phase.

This is too late!

Worker buy-in flows from the evaluation and selection phases. Remember this as you implement your respiratory program and hopefully you’ll succeed more quickly and with less heartburn. Happy breathing!

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