The second emerging trend is using certain types of PAPR systems to help solve certain eye injury issues. (3M photo)

Powered Air Purifying Respirators: Versatility Beyond Respiratory Protection

Recent advancements are driving a renewed interest by health and safety professionals to evaluate these systems as a potential solution for a variety of on-the-job hazards.

Managing personal protective equipment (PPE) programs can be challenging. To help reduce injuries, drive down costs, and increase the efficiency of managing programs, some companies are looking at traditional types of PPE in new ways. Take respiratory protection, for example. Powered air purifying respirators (PAPRs) have been widely used for years to help reduce worker exposure to airborne respiratory hazards. Recent innovations, however, are causing even more companies to take a second look at this increasingly versatile type of PPE.

PAPRs utilize a battery pack and motor blower unit to deliver filtered air into a facepiece or head covering. One common configuration is a belt-mounted style, where the surrounding air is passed through a high-efficiency filter or chemical cartridge into a breathing tube and finally up into a hood, helmet, or other type of loose-fitting headgear. Loose-fitting headgear forms a partial seal with the wearer through a neck collar, inner shroud, or an elasticized faceseal, depending on the product design. Alternatively, some systems will connect to a half or full facepiece tight-fitting respirator.

Belt-mounted PAPRs are typically worn around the waist, though some systems have an optional backpack that allows the system to be worn on the back. These systems run off battery power and will have a specified run time before the battery will need to be recharged. Battery run times vary by system, configuration, and use conditions.

PAPRs traditionally have been considered by health and safety professionals when high levels of exposure reduction are needed for airborne hazards, or in some cases as a solution for respirator wearers with facial hair. Depending on the system’s regulatory approval and the specific configuration, PAPRs have a U.S. assigned protection factor (APF) of up to 1,000. Consult the OSHA Respiratory Protection Standard, 29 CFR 1910.134, for additional information on APFs. For workers with beards or other facial hair, systems using a hood, helmet, or other loose-fitting headgear option may accommodate various amounts of facial hair. Wearers must be clean shaven to wear tight-fitting respirators, even when they’re used as part of PAPR system. Consult the manufacture’s User Instructions for the specific system model being considered for information regarding use with facial hair.

Protecting Against Multiple Hazards
Advancements in PAPR system design are driving many health and safety professionals to take a fresh look at this traditional type of PPE. Many companies are integrating PAPRs into their sites' health and safety programs to help solve challenges beyond respiratory exposures. Two examples of the expanded use of PAPR systems being explored by some companies are: 1) for workers needing protection from multiple types of hazards, and 2) as a potential way to help reduce the number of eye injuries.

In today's workplace, it is not uncommon for workers to be wearing respiratory protection in addition to other types of PPE, such as a hard hat, eye protection, and hearing protection. This can add complexity to health and safety programs because different types, makes, and models of PPE are not always compatible with each other. For example, a half facepiece respirator may not be compatible under a welding helmet, or ear muffs may interfere with use of a respirator. An alternative to using multiple pieces of PPE together is to consider products that integrate protection for multiple types of hazards into one streamlined product, as some PAPR systems do. There are systems available in the market that combine respiratory protection with other types of protection, such as head protection, eye protection, and hearing protection. Companies may have overlooked these PAPR systems in the past because of various challenges, including batteries and run times, cleaning and maintaining systems, perceived complexity, and overall bulk and system weight. Innovations in battery chemistry, materials, and electronics are giving way to systems that are more compact, longer running, and easier to use and maintain. In addition, many of these systems offer user-adjustable features, allowing the wearer more control to "customize" the system for his or her wearing comfort.

In light of these advancements, many employers are turning to these systems as favorable options for protection against multiple types of hazards. The potential benefits could include not only built-in compatibility and enhanced wearer comfort, but also reduced downtime adjusting PPE; less PPE to stock, manage, and maintain; and increased productivity.

Using PAPRs to Prevent Eye Injuries
The second emerging trend is using certain types of PAPR systems to help solve certain eye injury issues. When trying to solve challenges with eye injuries, companies often look to find a selection of protective safety glasses, goggles, and faceshields. However, in some cases, despite requiring these types of eye protection, health and safety professionals and supervisors are still being challenged with significant numbers of eye injuries. A number of eye injuries occur due to foreign debris landing in the hair and on the head during processes such as sanding and cutting, and this debris later may fall into the eyes. One option some are now exploring is leveraging the total head coverage offered by PAPR systems with hoods, helmets, and other loose-fitting headgear. Hoods, helmets, and loose-fitting headgear completely cover the head and can provide relief from injuries caused by falling debris. In addition, many helmets and certain styles of loose-fitting headgear have visors that meet the requirements of the American National Standards Institute standard for eye and face protection (ANSI Z87.1) and can be used to help protect against impact hazards.

As always, the employer needs to conduct a full hazard assessment to determine what protection is required for the application and review the manufacture'’s User Instructions for the specific system being considered.

Finally, the flowing air offered by these systems can add to all-day worker comfort.

Prevent Blindness America estimates about 2,000 eye injuries occur per day in the United States, and about 10-20 percent of those will be disabling because of temporary vision loss. This translates into an annual cost exceeding $300 million in lost production time, medical expenses, and worker’s compensation. While PAPR systems are a more expensive solution, they can be potentially justified when looking at the reduction of just one instance of an eye injury.

Powered air purifying respirators are becoming increasingly lighter in weight, more efficient, and more ergonomically designed. These advancements are driving a renewed interest by health and safety professionals to evaluate these systems as a potential solution, not only for respiratory protection but also a variety of other on-the-job hazards.

This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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