Breathing is something we take for granted. It comes naturally, and we never imagine there may be a time in our future when breathing won’t come easily. Yet we all know or have seen people who have difficulty breathing. There are several causes of breathing problems, but one cause is not wearing respiratory protection when it is needed.

Respiratory problems normally occur years after the exposure. Some workers choose not to wear respiratory protection when it is required. But oftentimes, the worker isn’t even aware that a hazard exists. Some hazards are easy to recognize. Fumes or dust cause a person to cough and/or have a scratchy throat. But what about when the hazard isn’t so noticeable? This is when we may place ourselves at greatest risk.

The first approach to eliminating respiratory hazards is to stop the hazard at its source. Engineering controls, such as ventilation, can eliminate the need for respiratory protection. A simple example of controlling the source of the hazard would be the use of a water spray to control dust. Let’s say workers using jackhammers to break up cement were causing silica dust to be in the air they were breathing. Rather than resorting to respiratory protection, a mist of water to knock down the dust will probably eliminate the hazard. Always assess the hazard and try to control the exposure before turning to respiratory protection.

Assessing the hazard

Air monitoring is an essential part of any respiratory protection program. For example, welding fumes are a common respiratory hazard, and the way to make sure the welder is not exposed to hazardous fumes is to do air monitoring. There are several ways of performing air monitoring, but the most common is simply using a pump.

An air-testing pump pumps in the surrounding air through a filter cassette. The cassette is placed near the worker’s breathing zone and a hose is attached to a pump that can be worn on a worker’s belt. Testing is done for several hours so that it is representative of a full workday exposure. You then take the cassette to a lab where it is analyzed and the amount of the contaminant being tested is identified.

Of course, there is more to air testing than this example, but it gives you a good idea of the process. You don’t have to be an industrial hygienist to do air testing, but if you are unfamiliar with the process it is best to get some outside professional help. Air testing equipment can be purchased or rented depending on the situation.

Types of protection

There are various types of respiratory protection. You must identify the hazard to determine the type of respiratory protection needed. The SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) is the highest level of protection, because it gives the wearer air to breathe. Other forms of respiratory equipment filter the air we breathe (air purifying respirators). NOTE: Air purifying respirators do not supply air and cannot be used in an oxygen-deficient area.

Let’s take a look at different kinds of protection available.
Dust masksare the most basic type of respiratory protection. They are worn over the nose and mouth to protect the worker from certain nuisance dusts, mists, etc. Dust masks are usually worn once and cannot be fit-tested.
Half-face respiratorshave two cartridges — one on each side — and the unit fits up over the nose. Assorted cartridges can be used depending on the contaminant. Be sure to use the correct cartridge; the container that the cartridges are packaged in will identify the contaminants they protect against. The worker must be fit-tested before wearing a half-face respirator.
Full-face respiratorsdo the same job as the half-face, except they provide full coverage of the worker’s face. They are ideal when working around fumes or mists that may get into your eyes. When there is not sufficient air to breathe, an SCBA or an airline respirator is needed:
SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) feeds breathing air to the facemask from a cylinder hanging on the worker’s back. The SCBA is bulky for the wearer and is only good for 30 to 60 minutes. It is ideal for rescue operations and emergency-type situations, such as entering an area to do a quick task like closing a valve or shutting down equipment.
Airline respirators. Wearing a respirator with an airline attached is another option. The worker can move around and does not have the problem of the air tank being on his or her back. The wearer can utilize a full-face mask or a hood.

OSHA regulation 29 CFR1910.134 outlines what it takes to have a good respiratory protection program. A good program and the right equipment can keep employees protected from respiratory hazards — something they may appreciate later in life.