Businesses with welding operations and welding contractors need to assess their controls and respiratory programs, increase their awareness of the hazards, and inform safety officers and workers of the appropriate measures for better respiratory prevention. (CleanSpace Technology photo)

Three Trends Impacting the Respiratory Market

New and innovative PAPR products are increasing user acceptance and protecting workers better.

Workplace safety has experienced many changes in recent years—from training/education, site monitoring, and remote and real-time data collection to global-wide adoption of safer work techniques driven by regulation, societal expectations and, importantly, improvements in PPE and safety equipment. The message is clear: Workplace safety is good for the workers and makes more efficient, profitable, and productive businesses.

Our workers deserve and expect a safe workplace. For employers or safety officers this is not always easy, and there can be considerable challenges for compliance and making suitable equipment available. Fortunately, the knowledge base of workplace safety and personal protective equipment (PPE) is growing, driven by committed organizations such as OSHA, CDC/NIOSH, ISEA, industry, and PPE manufacturers. One area that has recently had considerable change is respiratory protection.

Until last year, most respirators still had similarity to original patented products from the 1800s. While filter media have improved and plastics and other materials for facepieces have evolved, we haven't really seen anything dramatically different in many years. However, while there has been low innovation in the product category, we saw a spike each year in the number of respirator brands develop in the N95 disposable category. In the 1980s, ’90s, and early 2000s, there were quite a few well-known respirator manufacturers. Over the past five to 10 years, many of these brands have been acquired by larger brands, thus limiting the big well-known brands to a few household names. This has come at an expense to workers, with limited if any true innovation.

For too long, employers and their teams have had to endure the expense, discomfort, and limited protection of the N95 disposable mask and traditional APR. Industries were overdue for personal devices with high levels of protection that are comfortable to wear and easily deployable, even over the largest operations. Modern technology and smart design, like that in mobile phones, has enabled significant miniaturization and an equally significant increase in performance. In an industry that has not seen much innovation in decades, we introduced NIOSH-approved powered respirators that are revolutionary in respiratory protection; we also saw three significant changes in the various industries that are renewing interest in outfitting employees with better respiratory equipment.

Increased Need for Protection for First Responders and Health Care Professionals
Driven by the emergence of bioterrorism, infectious disease pandemics, and ever-present illicit fentanyl used in illegal drug manufacturing, health care and law enforcement personnel are faced with life-threatening risks from inhalation of unknown toxins and biohazards. First responders and health care workers’ health and safety is paramount in responding, containing, and protecting the community.

Infection control is also among the priorities for respiratory protection for pandemic airborne diseases such as avian influenza, MERS, or measles, tuberculosis, and other aerosol transmissible diseases (or a specimen suspected of containing an aerosol transmissible pathogen in a laboratory, such as anthrax). Until proven otherwise by diagnostic testing, the patients (and any biological samples from those patients) should be managed as being a potential source of aerosol transmissible disease. As a result, health care facilities, laboratories, and first responders have begun evaluating a wholesale change to Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPR).

Choosing to wear an air-powered respirator instead of a surgical mask, N95, or APR is based on a hazard analysis of workers’ specific work environments and the need to significantly reduce the risk of infectious disease transmission between infected and non-infected persons. Air-powered respirators are increasingly becoming a preferred option as first responders and hospitals prepare for pandemics, bioterrorism, and other public health emergencies by designating airborne infection isolation rooms (AIIRs) in compliance to the National Bioterrorism Hospital Preparedness Program.

Expanded Protection in Half and Full-Face PAPRs
Half mask and full-face air powered respirators are becoming much more accepted, according to a 2016 Frost and Sullivan report. As PAPRs become more cost effective, employers are starting 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—but all that is changing. While in the past, worker acceptance hasn't been consistent for PAPRs and supplied air systems, new and innovative PAPR products are increasing user acceptance and protecting workers better.

Per CDC/NIOSH, full-face air-powered respiratory masks should be used in any environment where decontamination showers are used. NIOSH recommends1 full-face masks when working with specific chemicals acrylonitrile (< or = 100 ppm); arsenic (< or = 500 µg/m3); asbestos (< or = 10 f/cm3); benzene (< = or 50-1,000 ppm); butadiene (< or = 50 ppm); and others. We also recommend using full-face respiratory masks in other applications with long-term use in areas demanding very high levels of protection and tasks where eye protection is required, such as woodworking, manufacturing, smelting, construction, recycling plants, emergency services, mining, agriculture, processing plants, and grinding.

With improvement in design, battery life, ergonomics, and ease of use, both half mask and full-face PAPRs’ acceptance and conversion is on the rise.

Impact of Regulatory Changes on the Respiratory Market
With new revelations from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) regarding the potential carcinogenic impact of welding fumes and OSHA's imminent enforcement on the crystalline silica standard for construction, the need for better respiratory protection is greater than ever. Millions of workers need protection or higher levels of protection.

According to the IARC, there are an estimated 11 million welders and an additional 110 million workers who incur welding-related exposures, including fumes and co-exposures to asbestos and solvents that can cause cancer. Welding fumes, produced when metals heated above their melting point vaporize and condense to fine particles, can be not only hazardous, but cancer causing. In May 2017, the World Health Organization and IARC reclassified welding fumes to a Group 1 known carcinogen. Businesses with welding operations and welding contractors need to assess their controls and respiratory programs, increase their awareness of the hazards, and inform safety officers and workers of the appropriate measures for better respiratory prevention. Most likely, OSHA and CDC/NIOSH will take action on this, as well.

Likewise, the recent OSHA crystalline silica standard impacts construction workers by reducing the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for respirable crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an eight-hour shift. About 2 million construction workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica in more than 600,000 workplaces. Crystalline silica can cause incurable lung disease leading to death. OSHA estimates that more than 840,000 of these workers are exposed to silica levels that exceed the new PEL.

Making the Comparison
As safety managers implement programs to increase worker safety and meet new respiratory protection requirements, they'll likely thoroughly evaluate the PPE marketplace and quickly find the choice between the same old respirators and some true innovation. As choices continue to improve, not surprisingly, employers and employees will begin to better identify with PPE that is similar to their consumer devices they use in everyday life.

As our PPE options continue to be technologically advanced, slim, light, easy to use, and cost effective, workers and companies will follow. Staying ahead of trends is an easy and valuable way for employers to remain aware and deliver business improvements while keeping their staff safe and their companies in compliance.


This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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