Respirators for the
Hard hats, safety boots, protective eyewear, and respirators are just some of the ways workers protect themselves while on the job in environments that pose potential health risks.
By Ester Brody
and protective eyewear are just some of the ways workers protect themselves while on the job in environments that pose potential health risks. In most cases, employees accept at face value the importance of using these extra measures to avoid injury. But when it comes to protection against airborne contaminants such as particles or vapors that can’t be seen, workers may not be as concerned. Perhaps this is because the damaging effects of inhaling dangerous levels of certain particles or fumes are not realized until years later. However, the health risks are real.
For most residential painting contractors, the issue of using respirators doesn’t often come up: most water-based latex paints pose little or no health risks when applied correctly in well-ventilated areas. However, when using solvent-based paints, or a great deal of stripping and sanding are involved, respirators are an important part of job safety. OSHA (Occupational Health and Safety Administration) has long required employers to have a respiratory safety program in place when levels of air contaminants exceed the OSHA Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL). Even though most residential paint jobs will not exceed PEL levels, respirators may still be warranted if it is a condition of doing business, or if an employee asks to wear one. In either case, it becomes the responsibility of the employer to determine if respirator use is warranted and, if not, if using respirators will not itself cause a health risk. To determine air quality on the job site, employers can turn to safety or health professionals who specialize in this kind of testing. When testing shows that there is no exposure to airborne contaminants above PEL, the employer can allow the “voluntary” use of respirators. If respirators are used voluntarily, employers are responsible for:
- Providing workers with the information included in Appendix D of the OSHA standard 1901.134.
- Determining (through health professionals) if workers are able to safely use respirators.
- Maintaining respirators through proper cleaning and storage.
If employees instead choose to use filtering facepieces, employers are only obligated to provide them with the information contained in Appendix D of the OSHA standard.
When air testing reveals PEL levels above what is considered safe, the employer must establish a comprehensive respiratory protection program according to OSHA standard 29 CFR 1910.34. The program involves these steps:
This is the step that was performed earlier to determine the need for respirators. The results of this testing are important since it identifies airborne hazards such as dusts, fumes, mists, gases and vapors. Results from the test will also determine which respirators are appropriate for the job. Other sources that can identify respiratory hazards include manufacturers who can supply you with Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), The American Conference of Government Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Both ACGIH and NIOSH publish pocket-sized reference books on measuring air quality.
It is the employer’s responsibility to be aware of potential health hazards and to avoid conditions that are dangerous. Employers should also establish medical screening procedures, and make efforts to prevent occupational illnesses.
Respirators come in two types: air-purifying respirators that work by filtering out airborne contaminants, and respirators that supply fresh air from an uncontaminated source. Most respirators are designed to be used with a number of special attachments such as filters and cartridges. The type of attachment used depends upon the work environment. Concentration levels will determine if a full or half-mask respirator is required, or if a negative or positive pressure system is needed. Negative pressure respirators are those that do not come with an attached air supply. The reference to negative pressure comes from the pressure that naturally occurs when you place a respirator over your mouth and nose and inhale, thus creating a negative pressure inside of the facepiece. Positive pressure respirators typically are those that supply air to the mask from a clean air source. While OSHA does not specifically define what a positive pressure respirator is, systems that supply air on a continuous basis and are generally described as positive pressure units. NIOSH and manufacturers can provide the most reliable information on the correct selection of respirators. 3M for example, publishes a pocket-sized respirator selection guide in addition to a computer program that gives specific information on how to chose products. Information can also be found on the 3M Web site.
Even if employees are familiar with respirators or have used them before, each new job has its own requirements. To make sure respirators work at optimum levels, they must fit properly. For example, employees with facial hair will not be able to achieve a good fit since the respirator and the skin need to come in direct contact. Teaching employees how to adjust head straps and nose clips is also part of obtaining a good fit. Again, manufacturers can assist when it comes to determining if respirators fit correctly. Finally, make sure that the employee education program includes information on how to maintain respirators and why they are important to use.
Ron Franklin, a professional painter in Sacramento, California, does all he can to make sure his work environment is safe. With more than 26 years in the industry, Franklin often wears a half-facepiece negative pressure respirator, especially when the job involves spraying. “With all that paint spray hanging in the air, I find it reassuring to wear a respirator,” says Franklin. Franklin also notes that there are on-the-job situations where respirators add comfort. “Vapors from some paint applications can get very strong,” Franklin says. “But if you have the right filters and cartridges, paint odor is not a problem.”
Over the years, Franklin has also seen product improvements like larger sizes and lightweight design that make wearing respirators more comfortable. “Doing your best work on the job is important,” Franklin observes. “Knowing that you’re being responsible about safety helps you take your time, adding to the quality of your work.”
Source: 3M 2000-2001 Health & Safety Resource Guide