For certain job types, workers may require protection from a variety of airborne hazards. From dust and chemicals to dangerous vapours or reduced oxygen, there are a number of factors that employers must consider in order to maintain the safety of those on the front lines.
Aside from administrative and engineering controls that can help to reduce risk, personal respirators can protect workers from further exposure to hazardous materials. Respirator units are also invaluable in emergency situations, where fire and smoke or chemical release force an escape from the work area. Respirators as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) do have limitations however, so it’s important to have a safety program in-place to deal with these types of issues.
Regulations & Policies
Employers have a direct responsibility to establish and maintain a respiration protection program to help ensure the safety of workers. If a company works with hazardous materials, they should institute a multi-level approach to safety that includes built-in back up and controls.
- Establish an in-house health and safety committee that is responsible for assessing overall risk, and then developing and enforcing safety policies and procedures to offset that risk. Equipment purchase, inspection and replacement should also be administered through a structured process.
- Consult with local and regional authorities to ensure complete understanding of, and compliance with, all regulatory requirements. These would include:
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety
Canadian Standards Association (CSA)
- For a complete overview of compliance requirements, be sure to reference CSA Standard Z94.4 - Selection, Use and Care of Respirators
- Consult with respiration equipment manufacturers for insight and guidance on equipment use, training, maintenance and replacement
- Consult with chemical manufacturers and MSDS reference materials to ensure complete understanding of all material properties and associated risks
- Develop a comprehensive written safety plan that includes all aspects of your respiration protection program. Also conduct thorough training for specific hazardous material types and characteristics, risk assessment, inspections, reporting, equipment use and emergency response.
The type of respiration equipment required will be dependant on a number of specific risk factors. The purchase and use of respirators should never be a random process and must be based on factors such as the type, concentration and toxicity of the hazardous material, as well as worker exposure times, oxygen levels and the need for potential escape.
There are numerous types and classes of respirators available, depending on the specific requirements. The 2 primary categories can be classified as air purifying respirators (APR) which use filters and canisters to protect from airborne particles or vapours vs, supplied air respirators (SAR) that supply clean air through a compressed air tank. There are also different models available for ¼, ½ or full face coverage.
Examples of air-purifying respirators types would include:
- Particulate Filters (disposable or with replacement cartridges – good for dust and certain gasses)
- Chemical Cartridge (uses chemical cartridges to absorb toxins)
- Gas Masks (more adsorbent and offering more protection than the cartridge-type)
- Powered Air-Purifying Respirators (PAPRs – includes a fan for air circulation – can be carried or remotely mounted)
Supplied-air respirators include:
- Self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA – similar to firefighting equipment)
- Air line supplied (worker hook-up system for extended exposure times)
- Protective Suits (full body and face coverage for highly toxic environments)
This type is used only in emergency situations, where workers need to quickly exit a contaminated area. There are a variety of models available, depending on industry and associated risk, and are typically designed to last for no more than 1 hour.
Once you have determined the types of respirators necessary to protect workers and are compliant with all regulations, there are a number of other things to consider in order to provide the safest working environment possible.
- Where possible, it’s always a good practice to use the least toxic materials available on the market. Product research and marketplace awareness is important to be able to help minimize risk.
- Apply engineering controls to work areas such as exhaust ventilation, clean air circulation and chemical enclosures
- Apply administrative controls to worker scheduling such as rotating shifts and tasks in order to limit exposure
- A medical exam is normally a good idea for workers who may have to wear respiration equipment. As breathing is harder through filters and cartridges, people with conditions such as asthma, emphysema, claustrophobia or issues with vision may have difficulty.
- Cartridges, filters and masks DO have a limited shelf life, even if they are still in their original airtight packaging. Be sure to store equipment in a cool, dry place and check expiry dates regularly.
- Never re-use contaminated masks and filters. Dispose of them immediately per manufacturers instructions.
- Proper fit is critical for respiration equipment to work effectively. Facial scars, beards, long sideburns or even a heavy stubble can prevent a mask from fitting properly and doing its job. Also consider head size and face shape when fitting to individual workers.
- As part of training protocol, occasionally stage mock emergency scenarios to test procedures, equipment and worker response
- Be aware of specific atmospheres and concentrations of hazardous materials that place workers at greater risk of injury or even death. This is referred to as IDLH or Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health and these factors should be made part of a safety or evacuation plan.
Respiration safety is a vital part of any business operation that exposes workers to hazardous materials. It’s everyone’s responsibility to be aware of the dangers and to ensure that the risks are minimized at all levels.