Photo courtesy of DuPont Tyvek

Do you know how widespread the use of respirators is today - and how many hazards respirators protect against?

Approximately five million U.S. workers in 1.3 million establishments have at least some occasion to use these safety devices for protection against any number of harmful elements or conditions.

These elements or conditions include:

  • Hazardous atmospheres containing particulates and/or dusts such as silica.
  • Vapors and gases such as carbon monoxide.
  • Atmospheres immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) such as oxygen deficient.
  • Physical agents such as radioactive particles.
  • Biological agents such as mold spores.

Unless respirators are used properly, however, your workers may be overexposed to such hazardous contaminants. The sad results can be acute and chronic health effects or suffocation from lack of oxygen.

Updated rules

OSHA's respiratory protection standards - covering general industry, construction, shipyard, longshoring and marine terminal workplaces - aim to ensure proper use. Proper use means that whenever conditions warrant respirators, effectively trained workers will wear the appropriate type of respirator, correctly fitted. OSHA expects that full compliance with these rules will prevent thousands of injuries, illnesses and deaths every year.

The current rules - 29 CFR 1910.134 and 1926.103 - were originally issued more than two decades ago. Technology advances have since produced more effective respirators and more know-how about what types are best suited for different atmospheres and what levels of protection are needed.

Those early versions were quite brief. But the standards OSHA revised in 1998 are considerably longer, and they give much more detail on respiratory protection.

The updated version provides requirements for:

  • Administrating a program, including a written plan with site-specific procedures.
  • Selecting the appropriate NIOSH-certified respirator, based on evaluating the respiratory hazards in the workplace and any factors that would affect the performance and reliability of the equipment.
  • Performing a medical evaluation, using a confidential questionnaire, to determine each worker's ability to wear the selected respirator, plus follow-up medical examinations as indicated.
  • Fit testing of employees before they are required to use any respirator with a negative or positive pressure tight-fitting facepiece. The fit test may be quantitative (QNFT) or qualitative (QLFT) and must be administered in accordance with mandatory Appendix A.
  • Training - including the reasons for respirator use; the importance of proper fit, use, maintenance and storage; how to put on, remove and check seals; and how to use the respirator in emergency situations, including when it malfunctions. The training is to be repeated at least annually and also under various specified conditions.
  • Evaluating the program periodically to ensure that it continues to be effective.

Four heads better than one

The revised standard also addresses the use of respirators in IDLH atmospheres, including firefighting. For interior structural firefighting, self-contained breathing apparatus is required, and at least two firefighters must enter together and remain in constant visual and voice contact with each other, while two additional firefighters must be on standby outside the building.

This requirement applies to state and local government firefighters in the states that operate their own OSHA-approved plans by adopting an identical or equally effective standard.

Other standards affected

It used to be that requirements relating to respirator selection, fit testing, and so on were usually placed in other standards, such as those for particular air contaminants. But with the advent of the current revision of the overall respirator protection standard, duplicate provisions were removed from those other standards and reference made to the general one.

Following is a list of affected standards:

  • Subject Gen.Ind. Constr
  • Asbestos 1910.1001 1926.1101
  • 13 named carcinogens .1003
  • Vinyl chloride .1017
  • Inorganic arsenic .1018
  • Lead 1025 .62
  • Cadmium .1027 .1127
  • Benzene .1028
  • Coke oven emissions .1029
  • Cotton dust .1043
  • 1,2-Dibromo-3-chloropropane .1044
  • Acrylonitrile .1045
  • Ethylene oxide .1047
  • Formaldehyde .1048
  • Methylenedianiline .1050 .60
  • 1,3-Butadiene .1051
  • Methylene chloride .1052
  • Ventilation .57
  • Underground construction .800
  • Fire brigades .156
  • Welding (general requirements) .252

Respirator ratings

The final rule will include a revised table of Assigned Protection Factors - numerical ratings given to different types of respirators to indicate how much protection a particular respirator can provide. This table will be added to the final rule at a later date.

According to OSHA's regulatory agenda published in the May 14, 2001, Federal Register, this could come as early as December.

This article was adapted from material previously published by Business & Legal Reports.

SIDEBAR: Respiratory safety checklist

  • Wear the type of respirator specified for the job and hazards.

  • Use an atmosphere-supplying respirator whenever there's not enough oxygen.

  • Use an air-purifying respirator when the air has enough oxygen but contains dangerous contaminants.

  • Check the cartridge/canister color-coding to be sure the respirator protects against the specific contaminant.

  • Check the end-of-service-life indicator or follow the change schedule for canisters or cartridges described in your company's respirator program.

  • Test respirator fit.

  • Practice tasks while wearing respirator.

  • Properly clean respirator.