PAPRs have long been designed around the same battery belt-mounted product and bulky designs. Worker acceptance hasn

What's Next for Powered Air Respirators

The powered air respirator market is ripe for innovation and technological enhancements.

Wow—as I write this article, they have just announced the new iPhone ‘X’ for about $1,000.00. When I think back on how communication tools have changed over the years, it makes me recall my early days in business with pagers and stopping at the side of the road with a pocket full of change to return calls. At the time, I wondered how my predecessors did business without a fax machine, and now, here I am today with a mobile phone with more memory than my first 10 computers' hard drives combined!

The technology revolution of phones and handheld connected devices of today amazes me. Who would have ever thought the speed of innovation and technology could liberate individuals and enable new services/products globally in such a short time. Our lives have been transformed to safer, more efficient, and more connected places.

The PPE market has certainly changed significantly over the years! There is a long history of personal protection, from the early days of animal parts and hides to the sophisticated materials and designs used today. The role of PPE in North America and the world's workforce have continued to expand, improve, and drive positive results.

With more than 1 million U.S. workplaces and millions and millions of workers and even hobbyists needing respiratory protection, the respirator could be said to be the most important type of PPE and certainly one of the most technical components of PPE. Millions of North American workers can't get through the day without some type of respiratory protection to protect themselves from particulates, gases, and vapors, plus who knows what's next.

Respiratory protection has been around since early in the 1st century, if not earlier, in one shape or another. In fact, the ancient Romans developed the use of animal bladders to protect against harmful dusts—can you imagine that? As the centuries went on, the need for workers to be protected from dusts, mists, vapors, and fumes continued to expand. Miners, stone cutters and masons, glass makers, factory workers, and many other jobs required respiratory protection. In the mid-1800s, the first cupped respirator with a one-way valve and moistened wool filter media was patented, and the respirator as we know it was born. With the advent of the industrial age, more exotic manufacturing materials and job functions arrived, requiring further enhanced products and protection.

As OSHA arrived in the United States in the early 1970s, employers had to take on a much more critical and proactive role in protecting workers. With new types of workplaces, we had to address new types of issues and situations.

So, what types of respirators do employers have to pick from today to properly protect workers? Respiratory protection is broken down into two main categories and, without going into too much detail, they include:

Air Purifying

  • Includes particulate protection and Gas and Vapor Protection, most commonly N95 Disposables or Air Purifying Dual Cartridge Respirators

Air Supplying

  • PAPR: Powered Air Purifying Respirators
  • Supplied Air: Continuous Flow Respirators
  • Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus for IDLH and super-heated environments

Where We Are Today
So where does that leave us today?

Of course, the most popular, most accessible, lowest-price-point protection comes from APRs, with N95 disposables leading the way. Why? Probably because they are simple and most small employers don’t really know how to or want to deal with a full respirator program, and disposable APRs "seem" to be the easiest and most cost-effective option. The word "seem" is in quotes because without a well-managed respirator program and sufficient employee training, disposables can become an "expensive habit," provide inadequate protection, and become very difficult to manage.

Here in 2017, most respirators still have a similarity to that original patented product from the 1800s. While filter media have improved and plastics and other materials for facepieces have evolved somewhat, we really haven't seen anything that is really that different in many years. However, while this has been a low-innovation product category, we see a spike each year in the number of brands of respirators available. In the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s, there were a handful of well-known respirator manufacturers. During the past 5-10 years, many of these brands have been swallowed up by larger brands, limiting the big, well-known brands to a few household names.

Respiratory Product Innovation
Okay, but what about innovation? Respirators are technically complex PPE governed by national standards and certifications that require manufacturers to design, test, and jump through many regulatory hurdles. Over time, the market for PPE has concentrated around a few large manufacturers and low-price/high-volume commodity players without much change. Does anyone want to really innovate? Perhaps with all of the technological advances of 2017, there's a place for smaller, technology-focused businesses to bring real innovation to market?

So we have many new brands or labels on the market but in reality, most are very similar and meet the same NIOSH standard for OSHA compliance. Is the ability for a new product and brand to enter the marketplace a good thing? Will new choices bring better worker acceptance, better protection, or the ability for more workplaces to become compliant with regulations, or will they just drive costs down? In Europe and the United Kingdom, regulatory enforcement is increasing, as is worker awareness of the need for protection, which has been the catalyst for some enhancements to respiratory protection—including some manufacturers who are developing respirators that are built in or designed to more closely work in conjunction with other PPE items.

Full-face respirators are becoming much more accepted, according to a 2016 Frost and Sullivan report. As PAPRs become more cost effective, employers will start to gravitate toward the ease of use and higher protection factors and increased comfort of PAPRs. PAPRs have long been designed around the same battery belt-mounted product and bulky designs. Worker acceptance hasn’t been great for PAPRs and supplied air systems, and they remain quite expensive, which makes the powered air respirator market ripe for innovation and technological enhancements.

What's Next?
What should we be looking for on the horizon? Should we be expecting innovation? Might there be an update on an old model, or are there technologies and materials available that improve design, weight, feel, and comfort? Will PPE and specifically respiratory protection, become "smarter"?

With new revelations from the IARC, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, regarding the potential carcinogenic impact of welding fumes and OSHA's imminent enforcement on the crystalline silica standard for construction, the need for greater protection is right in front of us, and millions of additional workers will need protection.

The big question is, can our PPE marketplace innovate like the technology we use in our everyday life? Suffice to say the American worker deserves the best in workplace safety, technology, and innovation. What do you think is next?

This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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