The AFL-CIO has consulted a respirator expert who has “serious concerns” over OSHA’s recent proposed rule that would shorten the fit-test period from one minute to 15 seconds, according to a report by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

The union is reviewing the regulations but has not yet taken a formal position, the report says. The union, however, wants OSHA to “take pause,” especially given the potential harm to workers should the shorter test period not be sufficient to test the fit of respirator masks properly, says Bill Kojola, an industrial hygienist for the AFL-CIO.

On Dec. 26, 2007, OSHA issued a proposed rule — Abbreviated Bitrex Qualitative Fit-Testing Protocol (ABQLFT) — that would give employers the option of deciding which qualitative fit-test to use when determining whether respirators will protect workers from airborne contaminants. The proposed regulation would not change how respirators are tested but would reduce the time for each test.

The proposed rule would add the ABQLFT to four other OSHA-approved qualitative fit-test protocols and would limit the use of the new ABQLFT to respirator users who demonstrate so-called Level I sensitivity to Bitrex screening solution. (Bitrex was approved in 1996 for qualitative fit-tests and has become increasingly popular as a challenge agent.)

Under OSHA regulations, new fit-test protocols may be proposed only after either peer-reviewed articles or tests by independent government labs support the procedures. Citing research published in 2003, OSHA “preliminarily determines that the proposed ABQLFT fit-testing protocol provides employees with protection comparable to the protection afforded to them by the existing Bitrex qualitative fit-testing provisions.”

Because the regulations simply allow the ABQLFT to serve as an alternative to existing fit-testing protocols, rather than mandate its use, OSHA finds that the proposal “would not directly increase or decrease the protection afforded to employees, nor would it increase employers’ compliance burdens.” The ABQLFT is designed to reduce “compliance burdens” by decreasing the time required to fit test respirators for employee use, OSHA says.

Comments on the proposed regulations will be accepted through Feb. 25, 2008. The agency is particularly interested in feedback on the accuracy and reliability of the proposed ABQLFT protocol, its effectiveness in detecting respirator leakage, and its usefulness in selecting respirators that will protect employees from airborne contaminants in the workplace, according to the SHRM report.