It wasn’t long ago that industries where respiratory protection is used provided and funded a dedicated area where respirators were cleaned and maintained. Over the past several years, however, there appears to be a trend where the user is issued a respirator and is responsible for its care and maintenance. It’s called “cost cutting.”

But even as industry works to streamline operations and cut costs, the importance of safety and the need for respiratory protection remain constant. The responsibility for cleaning and maintaining respirators is, in many cases, now in the hands of the user.

To that end, many respirator manufacturers have addressed these issues and are well positioned to help develop and maintain a compliant respiratory protection program. With that in mind, let’s focus on two key elements of a sound respiratory protection program: selection and maintenance.

Respirator selection

Sturdy & cleanable — Respirators take a beating. They are not only exposed to nasty industrial environments that can include airborne contaminants and extreme temperatures, but also to hazards introduced by the user. Oil and organic matter from the user’s skin and moisture condensed from the user’s breath can combine to form a fertile breeding ground for microbes. The physical stresses of repeated donning and doffing can damage a respirator’s sealing surface, inviting inhalation of contaminated air. For these reasons, choosing a sturdy, cleanable respirator is a good place to start.

Filter media — Respirator filter media are generally specific to the expected contaminant or hazard, so choose a respirator that will provide the protection you need. Most respirator manufacturers provide respiratory protection selection tools that can guide users to the right respirator. They, like other useful respiratory protection resources, are available 24/7 on the Web.

Specific hazard — Do not use a respirator if NIOSH (National Institute of Safety and Health) has not certified it for the hazard you’re seeking protection from. Find a respirator that has been designed and tested for the specific hazard. This will ensure that you have the proper protection and help keep you compliant with OSHA regulations.

Follow instructions — Once you’ve selected a respirator make sure it’s used in strict accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. User instructions serve a dual purpose: They educate the user, and they can help satisfy training requirements that are a condition of OSHA compliance. Manufacturers are relying more and more on the Internet to deliver respirator user “training on demand.” The personal computer’s capacity for multi-tasking offers cost-conscious managers a good way to use equipment they already have to train respirator wearers.

Respirator maintenance

Replacement parts — The first thing to remember about respirator maintenance is that you should use only replacement parts that are authorized by the original respirator manufacturer. This practice ensures the use of the correct replacement parts, and in the U.S., it is also mandatory in order to maintain the government (NIOSH) certification that was assigned to the respirator when it was new.

NIOSH tests, certifies and assigns protection factors to respirators used in the U.S. workplace. Several countries outside the U.S. also have their own testing and certification agencies. For example, in the European Union all respirators are CE or EN approved. Since all government agencies have slightly different requirements, it is important to be familiar with local regulations.

Cleaning — Clean and disinfect before and after each use and before storing. This will ensure that the respirator will be ready to use when needed. Disinfecting is just as important as good cleaning. Disassemble the parts first as directed in the user’s instruction manual. Soak them in a germicidal cleaner as per label instructions. Most germicidal cleaners require a minimum of ten minutes of contact to be effective. Do not use alcohol as a germicide. It may damage respirator components.

Never use extremely hot water or abrasive cleaners. Also, never use high-pressure air or water to blow or flush away dirt. Doing so can easily damage the respirator and its components. Remember: Follow the manufacturer’s directions.

Inspection — Once the respirator is clean and dry, reassemble and inspect it. Look for non-conforming, missing or damaged parts. Do this before and after each use, beginning when you first remove it from the original package.

Examine the outside and inside of the respirator. Check to make sure the head straps are attached properly and have good elasticity. Look for cracks or holes in the facepiece, especially around the cartridge or filter receptacle(s). Take a very close look at the inhalation valves, exhalation valves and gaskets. Make certain that they are seated properly and that there are no foreign particles or residue that may interfere with their operation.

Check cartridge(s) or filter(s). Make sure the filter body is intact (no cracks or holes that could permit unfiltered air in) and that the mounting surfaces are in good condition. Remember, just like water, air follows the path of least resistance. Look for any condition that could let unfiltered air enter the breathing zone. Remove the respirator from service if any such condition is present. Since every respirator is a little different in design, make sure all other parts that make up your specific respirator receive a thorough inspection.

If the respirator is the type with a viewing lens (commonly referred to as a full-facepiece respirator), check for scratches or any other condition that can hamper your ability to see through the lens.

Storage — One inspection point that is often overlooked is checking for distortion that can result from improper storage. Any change to the shape of the respirator, especially a change that affects the sealing surface, is grounds for rejection. Carefully examine the sealing surface. Look for cracks, tears, folds — anything that could negatively affect a good face to facepiece seal.

Many on-demand training programs feature step-by-step inspection procedures that lead users through a thorough inspection procedure.

SIDEBAR: Medical clearance — online

A Web-based service that can save time and money, as well as ease OSHA compliance, is online medical clearance. OSHA regulations require potential respirator users to demonstrate a certain degree of medical fitness before using a respirator. All that’s needed is a computer with Internet access and a printer.

Respirator users log on to a Web site and answer a series of health-history questions. When complete, the system automatically determines whether or not the user is medically fit to use a respirator. The system then gives the user the option to print a certificate on the spot.