Published in the Federal Register January 8, 1998, OSHA's revised respiratory protection standard, 29CFR1910.139, goes into effect April 8 this year.

A much-hyped facet of the revision is a "two-in/two-out rule" requiring firefighters to enter burning structures in teams of at least two with at least two other fully-equipped and trained firefighters standing by. Other major requirements of the new standard, covering all industry sectors except agriculture, are that:

  • Employers must have a written respiratory protection plan tailored to the specific needs of each worksite;

  • Employers must conduct a hazard evaluation to characterize respiratory hazards and conditions of work;

  • Employees must be trained and medically evaluated to determine their ability to wear respirators;

  • Employees must be fit-tested if tight fitting respirators are to be worn;

  • Highly protective respirators are required in atmospheres that are immediately dangerous to life or health, including firefighting;

  • Employers must periodically evaluate their respiratory protection program to ensure its continuing effectiveness.

OSHA estimates the revised rule will prevent 932 deaths from cancer and other chronic diseases each year, as well as prevent more than 4,000 injuries and illnesses and save $94 million in related costs per year.

To avoid confusion and reduce paperwork, the agency has deleted all provisions addressing respirator use, selection, and fit testing from its substance-specific standards.

What's in it for small business

Small business was given extra consideration during final rulemaking, OSHA says. Examples cited in the preamble of provisions made with small businesses in mind include:

  • A reduction in the number of repeat fit tests required for quantitative fit testing;

  • Allowing employers to use a questionnaire as a minimal medical evaluation tool to ascertain an employee's ability to use respirators, rather than requiring a hands-on physical examination;

  • Allowing medical evaluations to be conducted either by a physician or by another licensed health care professional, which will reduce medical surveillance costs without compromising employee protection;

  • Making the frequency of medical evaluations, after the initial assessment, event-related instead of time-related, e.g., only requiring such evaluations when specific conditions indicate a need for a reevaluation.

  • Reducing the amount of paperwork required in connection with medical evaluations. OSHA's previous standard required a physician to determine pertinent health and physical conditions, and further required that the respirator user's medical status be reviewed periodically. Historically, employers have had physicians evaluate their employees' physical conditions, and have maintained records documenting those evaluations;

  • Revising the requirements for disinfecting respirators from "after each use" to "as necessary to be maintained in a sanitary condition";

  • Requiring only that tags be used to document respirator inspections, rather than requiring written records; and,

  • Allowing the employer to obtain a certificate of analysis of breathing gas from the supplier rather than requiring employers to conduct gas analyses themselves.

What's next for OSHA

Assigned protection factors--numerical ratings for respirators' protective strength--remain an outstanding issue. OSHA has debated whether to continue using NIOSH APFs, refer instead to the newer ANSI APFs, or use a combination of the two. For now, the agency says in cases where it has not made a different determination in a substance-specific standard, NIOSH APFs should be followed. A section of 1910.139 has been reserved for further rulemaking on APFs, which OSHA intends to complete in 1998.

The Friday after OSHA published the final rule, getting anyone who had worked on the standard on the phone was impossible: "They're all dead tired, they took the afternoon off," a co-worker told ISHN. Back in the office the following week, John Steelnack, OSHA project officer on respiratory protection since the mid-eighties, itemized the work yet to be done: "Now we do a roll out and write all the support materials and a compliance directive, answer questions, and continue working on the assigned protection factors."

Respiratory protection standard-setting is not over yet. "But we hope it won't be much longer," says Steelnack.

The complete text of CFR 29 1910.139 is available online at