If you’re shopping for a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the copious criteria that go into choosing the right one for your specific needs. To start, there are volumes of OSHA and ANSI guidelines that must be followed. You also need to determine if your workplace respiratory hazard is IDLH (Immediate Danger To Life and Health). If so, then a full-face, pressure-demand SCBA certified by NIOSH must be used.

To select the right SCBA for the proper application, the following major questions should be addressed.

Chief considerations
How often will equipment be used? Is this SCBA going to be a “wall hanger” with limited use (hopefully never) but required by a regulatory agency, or is it going to be used frequently? Determine usage as part of the selection process, because over the years you may have to replace parts such as visors and harness assemblies. Consider cost and availability of spare parts for up to five or ten years from the purchase date.

Do I need communications? Do you need updates from workers when they are using the SCBA? If so, you may need radio communications or a voice amplification system, or both.

Is equipment easy to decontaminate? What is involved in cleaning, inspecting and placing the SCBA back into service? Is the harness assembly simple to disassemble for cleaning or does it require major disassembly? Before you buy, ask the salesperson to disassemble the harness while you watch.

What is the required maintenance interval? This is important because it leads to the cost of ownership (see below). Some manufacturers state no required maintenance for three years; others state maintenance every eight years.

What is the real cost of ownership? What it really boils down to is how much cost is required for this maintenance. Read the fine print. The three-year plan may require only cleaning and lubricating of o-rings and no parts replacement with a one-hour labor charge, while the eight-year plan requires all new o-rings and component changes that may cost over $400.

Can repairs be done onsite? Will the vendor come to your company to maintain the SCBA? If not, you may need to obtain a loaner SCBA while the other is out of service.

Can employees be trained to maintain the equipment? Some repairs are very easy and require standard tools. Having a certified repair technician onsite will eliminate the need to send the SCBA to the vendor’s location.

Will the vendor offer onsite training to my employees? All employees using the SCBA will have to be trained on donning/doffing, which should be free from the manufacturer. As an employer, you must make sure one of your employees becomes certified in a train-the-trainer program, which is not free. Find out if you’ll receive a discounted rate for training classes.

Have I factored in fit testing? You need to have all users fit tested to ensure the proper size facemasks. Fit testing must be performed annually and can cost $35 to $50 per test. Factor this cost into your annual budget.

Naming your needs
Once you have the major questions answered, you need to decide your basic needs to provide your employees the best equipment possible.

Where will the SCBA be used and stored? Determine if you will have coverage at multiple locations or one location only? Will the SCBA be stored inside or outside and at what temperature range?

Hood vs. mask. What employees will use this equipment? Do any users have facial hair and would they have concerns about shaving? Would the use of a positive pressure hood resolve this issue? If this is the case, does the SCBA manufacturer offer a tight-fitting hood as part of the SCBA?

Nylon net vs. neoprene. A conventional facemask uses a harness assembly made from either a neoprene or a nylon net material. If your application is a heavily contaminated environment, you may want to use a neoprene harness for easy cleaning. If you are looking for comfort, use the net harness, but be aware it may add to your cost of ownership.

Facemask options. Pay close attention to the facemask and second-stage regulator. All will meet the NIOSH standard, but the comfort and fit will vary. Check the field of view, especially looking down — will users be able to navigate a set of stairs?

The second-stage regulator is usually mask-mounted and attaches by one of three methods: pushing inward to lock in place, 1/4-turn to lock, or with threaded connections. Most of these regulators are first-breath activated, which means the user inhales to activate the airflow. Some second-stage regulators are integrated into the facemask, allowing the user to breathe ambient air while wearing the facemask (conserving breathing air) until respiratory protection is needed.

Choosing cylinder duration. Cylinder duration varies from 30-minute, low-pressure (2,216 psi) systems to high-pressure (4,500 psi), 30-, 45- or 60-minute duration cylinders. Filled cylinders also vary in weight. Duration of rated cylinders is based at a 40-liter per minute rate. It is very easy to double the worker’s breathing rate with heavy work while wearing the SCBA. Ensure the real duration time matches your work/escape time.