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Selecting the Right Respiratory Mask for Your Work

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Anyone who works in areas where dangerous gases, vapors, or particles are present should wear a respiratory mask. These PPE (personal protective equipment) safety devices come with the territory whether you are beginning a new job where these hazards are present, or tackling a new project that involves sawing, sanding, or drilling and the corresponding clouds of dust and dirt.

Respirator masks use filters, cartridges, or canisters to remove harmful particles from the air as it is inhaled through the mask. If you find yourself in areas with high levels of air pollution, near the presence of mold or asbestos, or in a setting where harmful bacterial or viral infections have been found, it is of vital importance that you select the right respiratory device.


Respirator Types Air Purifying Supplied Air Respirators

Particulate Filtering (PFR)

Vapor and Gas Filtering


Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) and Air Line Respirator

Air Quality
particulates and concentration of oxygen > 19.5% certain vapor, gases present, and concentration of oxygen > 19.5%
dusts, mists, fumes, vapors, gases, smoke- and/or oxygen-deficient environments < 19.5%
disposable, quarter, half, full-face quarter, half, full-face
mouthpiece, disposable respirators
high high
restricted by air line's state
- -
demand-mode and pressure-demand
Length of Use
change frequently until filter is depleted
30-60 minute air supply


The most common respiratory mask is the N95 respirator. Unlike the basic surgical masks found in hospitals, N95s fit very close to the face, forming a seal around the mouth and nose. They are considered disposable and should be used only until they become visibly worn or damaged, or if breathing through them becomes difficult. 

N95s are sometimes referred to as filtering facepiece respirators, or FFRs, because particles are captured in the fibers of the mask, which acts as a filter. “N95” refers to the filter class, with “N” meaning that the filter is not resistant to oil and “95” meaning it removes at least 95% of airborne particles.

Some N95s also feature an exhalation valve on the front of the mask, which makes it easier for the wearer to breathe by reducing air resistance when exhaling.

Construction sites and industrial settings often call for N95 respirator masks because of the prevalence of dust and small particles. But there are special class II versions regulated by both the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which are designed for healthcare settings to protect healthcare workers and patients from the transmission of specific viruses or bacteria. 


Gas Masks

Also known as “air-purifying respirators,” gas masks filter particles as well as chemical gases from the air. More sophisticated than straightforward facepiece respirators, gas masks are strapped to the head and feature a cartridge created for a specific safety function, such as to filter out harmful particles from a biological weapon or to remove carbon monoxide from smoke during a fire. 

Gas masks are typically made with rubber or silicone that creates a seal against the face. There are both half and full facepiece versions, with the latter adding a layer of face and eye protection against harmful liquids, as well as eye-burning vapors.

Unlike N95s and other filtering facepiece respirators, gas masks are reusable, as the attached filters and cartridges can be replaced as needed. Once you put on a gas mask, the amount of time it offers protection can vary by both the device’s filtering capacity and the concentration of the chemical or other hazard found in the air. 

It’s important to note that gas masks only work if they are used with the proper cartridge. And while some are available that can provide protections for multiple scenarios, there is not a single cartridge that works for every type of chemical or particle. Do your research and choose wisely. Also, check the expiration date periodically, as filter cartridges have a limited lifespan. Always store gas masks and cartridges in air-tight packages to extend their functionality. And remember, if they are opened to the air or damaged in any way, they might not be effective. 


Powered Air-Purifying Respirators (PAPRs)

Similar to gas masks, powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs) use custom filters to counter specific hazards. Therefore, you need to be aware of what harmful chemicals or particulates you are likely to encounter based on the job and the environment you are working in. 

Unlike standard gas masks, powered air-purifying respirators use a battery-controlled fan to blow air through the filter, cleaning it before it gets to the user. These types of respirators use only high-efficiency particulate filters and are generally considered more protective than their non-powered counterparts because of the positive pressure created inside the facemask. This positive pressure can create an environment that minimizes the presence of potentially contaminated air inside. 

Like gas masks, powered air-purifying respirators come in half- or full-facepiece versions. They also come in loose-fitting facepieces or hoods, which can be an effective option for those with beards or other issues that can impact the fit and seal of a mask.

Dozens of jobs require respiratory masks, from those who remove hazardous materials such as radioactive or nuclear waste, to house painters, to firefighters, healthcare workers, and other First Responders. Always check with your employer or specific industry association before selecting a respiratory device to ensure that it provides the proper protections to ensure you stay safe on the job.

Product Compliance and Suitability

The product statements contained in this guide are intended for general informational purposes only. Such product statements do not constitute a product recommendation or representation as to the appropriateness, accuracy, completeness, correctness or currentness of the information provided. Information provided in this guide does not replace the use by you of any manufacturer instructions, technical product manual, or other professional resource or adviser available to you. Always read, understand and follow all manufacturer instructions.