Is Anything New in Respiratory Protection?

Today's technology and the development of stronger, more versatile materials have resulted in innovative design, ruggedness, reliability, comfort, and usefulness.

So what’s new with respirators? It’s true that most respirator designs do not change much from year to year. And when they do, the changes are very likely within the expected evolutionary range.Components are enhanced by technology to provide more safety for users. Cartridge designs are a little sleeker. The air for air-supplied respirators is bottled in a smaller or larger cylinder that may be made from a new material or improved by a new manufacturing process.

The act of fine-tuning respirator features is often motivated by a newly issued NIOSH or OSHA regulation or some new demand brought to the foreground by industry groups.

During the past several years, NIOSH defined protocols for certifying various types of respirators for protection against CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear) agents. A number of manufacturers upgraded their respirator lines to meet those requirements, and many first responders (firefighters, law enforcement agencies, and emergency medical services) and other infrastructure-related companies have upgraded their respiratory protection accordingly.

However, we’ve seen no changes in respiratory protection regulations in 2008.

The State of the Respirators
As for product usage, the industrial-style SCBA (selfcontained breathing apparatus) is still used for entry into IDLH atmospheres containing chemical hazards, etc.We see more and more industrial fire brigades following NFPA requirements as they purchase new SCBAs for emergency use.

Industrial supplied-air and SCBAs are in demand by coal, petrochemical, and other energy-related industries where workers may be exposed to many hazards during production. Unknown hazards, confined spaces, and emergency escape situations always call for full protection, starting with SCBAs. Powered Air-Purifying Respirators (PAPRs) are gradually growing more popular than their non-powered counterparts, negativepressure Air-Purifying Respirators (APRs) (without a blower).

One notable trend toward versatility is made possible by manufacturers’ research and engineering teams, particularly in corporations that strive to meet customers’ requests for improvements large and small. Probably the users’ needs and desires have not changed much over the years, but today’s technology and the development of stronger, more versatile materials have resulted in innovations in design, ruggedness, reliability, comfort, and usefulness.

As always, workers want comfort, lighter weight, dependability, and protection in a design that does not impede their movement on the job. Employers want quality safety products that last a long time, require minimum maintenance and training, protect but do not encumber workers, and fit their budget.With respiratory protection, cost is usually measured over the life of the product, because quality respiratory protection must be made carefully, of fine materials and excellent design. Also, an SCBA already in service often can be upgraded with new components that provide additional safety and other benefits.

Good designs are made better, and in many ways, today’s SCBAs and APRs—especially PAPRs—provide far superior protection to their counterparts being used 10 to 20 years ago. Superior protection means a higher degree of safety for workers who wear respiratory protection.

Multipurpose Facepieces
Two examples of innovations illustrate the latest improvements in respiratory protection design.

First is a notable achievement in versatility: a single SCBA platform with a versatile facepiece that can be configured into various types of respiratory protection that share certain components. One such SCBA model provides NFPA-compliant CBRN protection,with a 30- or 60-minute air cylinder and all of the latest components currently demanded by firefighters.When users need less protection (i.e., air-purifying instead of supplied- air protection), they can make several substitutions and adjustments to the device, including removing the air cylinder and changing air hoses, and then go back to work with the same facepiece plus air-purifying cartridge/filter or the more comfortable PAPR with a blower anchored at the waist. If, for example, they must enter a confined space, they can exchange their air-purifying components for the air-supplied components, hose, and cylinder for full protection again.

The facepiece is designed to be multipurpose, allowing flexible use of respirator components as the nature of the worker’s environment and/or job changes. Some multipurpose facepieces provide wearers more flexibility than ever before because they are designed to accept components that provide different levels of respiratory protection.

This versatility yields many benefits for both worker and employer.Workers carry the air tank only when they need to use that half-hour or so of air. For much of their work day, they can be protected by air-purifying cartridge/filters that last for hours and, of course, are lighter and have a lower profile.

Cost-conscious employers enjoy the benefits of low maintenance and very few parts. The use of a single facepiece for several types of respirators minimizes costs for training, fit testing, inventory, etc.

Increased Use of PAPRs
The second innovation results in increased use of powered air-purifying respirators. In some jobs where an APR has been used, workers have switched to PAPRs. They find it more comfortable to breathe through than a negative-pressure facepiece, and PAPRs are especially suitable for workers with longer shifts. Remember that a more comfortable employee usually is more productive. Some workers are switching to PAPRs because they provide a higher level of protection and, if a hood is used, no fit testing is required.

A major reason for the switch to PAPRs is the latest advancement in PAPR design. Older PAPR designs lack built-in comfort and safety features, and the blower modules worn on the belt can be big and bulky. Some older PAPRs have secondary cables attached to the blower,which lead to a battery pack or some other area.Most older PAPRs do not have audible or visible warnings for low flow or battery depletion, as the latest models do.

Also, the batteries, of older technology, run for short periods of time and require a long time to recharge. Today’s more modern technology has led to the advanced PAPRs, which offer a greater degree of safety and comfort to the user.

Another reason for an increased use of PAPRs is more stringent OSHA exposure levels for contaminants, such as hexavalent chromium. In work situations with a high level of exposure, a negative-pressure respirator may no longer provide sufficient protection. Welders, who are typically exposed to hexavalent chromium, know that chronic exposure can result in cancer and other serious medical problems, and they want the best protection possible.

The “trend” for better protection never ceases, and that is good news for everyone.

Some Things Never Change
People always want to know what’s new. But just because little is new in respiratory protection doesn’t make it any less important or effective than it has always been. In fact, most innovative products include features that have been added over the years, such as facepiece seals that fit a variety of wearers’ faces better and optically correct facepiece lenses.

There are no shortcuts in manufacturing trustworthy respiratory protection, and buyers should always choose products made by companies with an established history and solid reputation for both products and service.

This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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