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The Complete Guide to Respiratory Protection at Work

Keep your workers safe from respiratory hazards on the job


Keeping workers safe in a variety of environments is essential to remaining compliant and reducing risk. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), millions of workers in the U.S. are required to wear respirators at work. This necessary protective gear enables employees to breathe easily in settings where it may be unsafe to breathe without one. Although OSHA does mandate that workers wear these with specific standards, there are still many cases each year of worker injury and even death as a result of their workplace conditions. To help your workers stay safe, we’re sharing a complete guide to respiratory protection at work. 

Types of Respirators

Respirators fall into two major classes, as defined by OSHA. Air-purifying respirators remove contaminants from the air, whereas atmosphere-supplying respirators deliver clean, breathable air from a sterilized air supply. Respirators may either be tight or loose-fitting. Tight respirators fit snugly on the face and include filtering facepieces. Loose respirators cover the head completely like a hood or helmet. Any respiratory device worn in the workplace must meet the approval of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Have a Documented Program and Necessary Signage

If respiratory protection is mandatory in your workplace, you are legally required to have a documented respiratory protection program. Even if it’s not compulsory, it’s still a good idea to have a written program. This resource offers workers the information they need to stay safe. 

In addition to documenting your program, you should consider installing warning signage in areas where breathing can be compromised. This notifies any person that might come into the area that conditions are unsafe, and that additional protection is recommended.

Have the Appropriate Respirators On Site

OSHA states that companies must complete an exposure assessment before selecting the type of respirators to deploy for workers. In this assessment, you’ll need to identify the type of airborne contaminants that may pose a risk—chemical, biological, or particulate—in addition to the number of contaminants that workers could be exposed to.

This assessment allows you to quantify the risk. Based on this, you’ll have the information needed to determine which respirators will work best. Another vital part of choosing respirators is considering worker comfort. Mandatory respirators are often worn for long periods of time. You should also account for any medical conditions your employees have that could prevent them from wearing respirators correctly. 

The different types of respirators include full-face respirators and half-mask respirators. There are many different options in these categories, and they also come in multiple sizes for the right fit. Respirators are also available as reusable or single-use versions. If they are single-use, they should be disposed of after wear. 

Perform Checks to Make Sure Workers Are Wearing Respirators Correctly and Consistently

Just providing your workers with the necessary respiratory protection gear is only part of ensuring compliance and safety. It’s vital to perform checks in case workers aren’t using the masks appropriately. One issue can arise if workers have beards or excessive facial hair. This can make it difficult for the equipment to form an effective seal on their faces. 

Offering regular training on how to use respirators and how to properly adjust them for a tight fit should be company policy. OSHA requires fit testing when employees are wearing respirators. Thus, they’ll need to be aware of, and have access to, the instructions for the respirator. Another area of concern is safety eyewear, as this can also inhibit the fit of respirators. Make sure these two pieces of gear don’t obstruct one another. 

Maintain and Keep Respirators in Proper Working Order

If you are using reusable respirators, they’ll still need to be changed out regularly. The product packaging and instructions should include information on how long the useful life of the equipment is. Reusable respirators also need to be cleaned, sanitized, and repaired properly. Storage of respirators should be in a clean, dry area. When replacing respirator filters, remove excess packaging and ensure the filter is inserted correctly.

Always Have Plenty of Extras

Whether you use reusable or disposable respirators, you should always have ample supply. Keep an inventory of the equipment you have and make sure you reorder when quantities fall below a certain threshold.

To ensure you have a successful respiratory protection program, you’ll want to follow all these guidelines. Remind workers to inspect their respirators before wear, and help them to avoid any danger. Your training should also include information related to the signs of respiratory failure.

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.