Be Ready for Emergencies

Industrial respirators can be used for emergency escape. However, there are many types of emergency to consider.

Editor's note: Respiratory protection in emergencies is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Employers must assess their operations fully, determine the potential hazards and escape routes, and then equip and train their employees adequately so they can get out when necessary. Lynn Feiner, who is respiratory product manager for North Safety Products of Cranston, R.I., discussed the issues Nov. 8 with the editor and associate editor of Occupational Health & Safety. Excerpts from the interview follow.

Let's start by discussing the concept of emergency respirators. Why are they needed? Who needs them?

Lynn Feiner: When you're talking emergency respirators, primarily we're talking about industrial markets for emergency escape. You also have domestic preparedness, but if you look at the industrial market, there are a couple of reasons one would need an emergency respirator. One would be if you have the possibility of an unforeseen break, let's say you've got a company that's got ammonia pipes or something, and that breaks, and all of a sudden you've got a potential chemical turning into an actual problem. You've got to get the people out. That's one. Another one would be cleanup. You would use respirators to go in and clean up in an emergency, to go and rescue in an emergency. But most people, when they think of emergency respirators, are thinking of egress: Getting the people out.

Right. It could be a fire or some kind of emergency that's general, rather than somebody having a cardiac arrest.

Feiner: Correct. It wouldn't be someone, a worker himself necessarily, being hurt. That's another kind of emergency; that's a rescue. We're talking about healthy workers working in a non-contaminated environment and suddenly, because of a spill or a problem, the environment is contaminated and you have to get the workers out. You have to get them to safety.

Talk for a few minutes, please, about what kinds of respirators ought to be used in these different scenarios you've just mentioned.

Feiner: You have several different types of respirators, from air-purifying all the way up to supplied air. The first thing that the person assessing what respirator to use ought to ask himself or herself is, Is this situation potentially IDLH, meaning Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health? If it could possibly be IDLH, then you're limited by the emergency respirator to either an emergency escape breathing apparatus or a pressure demand or self-contained breathing apparatus.
You would not want to use an air-purifying respirator in an IDLH environment. IDLH environments are defined as an environment where you have less than 19.5 percent oxygen or you have a contaminant that is at the IDLH level. In other words, you've got so much contaminant that the workers are impaired and if they are exposed it would be a permanent, life-threatening exposure.

Are there situations where there wouldn't be sufficient time to make that determination, that the situation was an IDLH situation?

Feiner: You would want to know that beforehand, before you even decide what respirator you have. Because you need to make sure that you have the right respirator, and if you don't know, you have to make the assumption that it would be IDLH. You have to make the worst-case assumption.

You spoke at the beginning about industrial uses for respirators. Most work sites that require industrial respirators would find that they are also sufficient for emergencies that would happen at those sites, would they not?

Feiner: Sometimes they would. There are several different scenarios. You could have respirators that are used for normal day-in, day-out working. And for some reason, you suddenly get a surge of contamination and that becomes an emergency, you have to get people out. Or you may have a situation where the ambient air is perfectly fine but then you get a leak or a break in a pipe and you've got to get people out. So you can have regular respirators that they'd be using day-in, day-out that also can be used for emergency escape. But usually when one's thinking about an emergency escape respirator, it's a respirator that is dedicated to emergency escape.

Every kind of respirator really functions against a specific type of hazard, right? You can't get a general respirator that would protect against everything that's out there or might be out there. For instance, a respirator that protects against a certain kind of toxic hazard would not be useful in a fire, correct?

Feiner: That's correct. When you say protect against every hazard, you of course do have self-contained breathing apparatus or pressure demand -- any kind of supplied air, obviously -- are bringing ambient or clean air to the wearer. So you are protecting against unknowns and different types of contaminants. But you have to make sure that the SCBA you are using meets NFPA criteria if you are going to be using it in structural firefighting.

And it would be a totally different scenario when you're talking about escaping from a fire. You have not just the potential for contaminants, but you also have oxygen deficiency because a fire consumes oxygen, and you have carbon monoxide buildup. So a fire is a very specific, very specialized emergency. Most air-purifying respirators would not be ones you could use for emergency escape in fire.

What about fit testing for emergency respirators? If they're just for emergency escape, some kinds do not need to be fit tested. But if they're general, industrial respirators, they certainly do.

Feiner: You do want to fit test if it is a tight-fitting facepiece to be sure that the person has got the right size respirator. Especially if you've got an air-purifying [unit] that you're going to be using for emergency. That would have a negative pressure inside the mask.

Right. And it has to be a tight-fitting, face seal-providing respirator.

Feiner: But there are other emergency escape respirators that you do not need to fit test. One of them, an air-purifying respirator that does not need to be fit tested, is a mouthbit. North offers two mouthbits, one for acid gases and one for ammonia. And those would be for escape from non-IDLH atmospheres. As I said, a scenario where you've got perfectly good, clean air but then suddenly there's a spill, the person has a mouthbit respirator that he keeps with him that's clipped to a belt. And then they would grab the mouthbit respirator, put it in their mouth, and get out of there. You do not fit test a mouthbit respirator.
Another respirator that you would not need to fit test would be an escape hood. North offers a five-minute, a five-minute high-flow, and a 10-minute emergency escape breathing apparatus. And it is a clear hood that one would put on over one's head, and then you've got a bottle of five or 10 minutes of air. And you use it to escape.

Does the mouthbit work like a scuba mask?

Feiner: It looks a little like a snorkel, I guess is the best way to put it. Except instead of a snorkel tube that would go up to fresh air above water, it's got a cartridge.

But is it something that requires a certain kind of breathing, such as breathing through your mouth?

Feiner: You've got to breathe through your mouth. In fact, it has a nose clip that you clip over your nose.

Do you have to train people to breathe with that kind of respirator?

Feiner: I'm glad you asked about training. Everybody needs to be trained on how to use emergency escape respirators. In fact, everybody needs to be trained on respirators in general. And so if you've got emergency escape respirators that you are issuing to people, you need to make sure that they're trained on how to use them, what deems an emergency, what to do in an emergency, what the exit route is, and how to take care of the respirator, how to inspect and maintain it, make sure it is always operable.

Because the last thing you need in an emergency is to discover that your respirator is not working. You don't have time to go out and get it fixed.

I had a question in mind and you've gotten right to it. Should employers also conduct emergency drills using their respirators?

Feiner: Absolutely. The last thing I always like to say when I go to train people on self-contained breathing apparatus for hazmat spill cleanup, or emergency, or anything, is, the only time they put it on is once a year during the regular training. You want to train more frequently than that, in my personal opinion.

Are there other factors, such as storage and maintenance, that come into play?

Feiner: They need to be stored in a clean area, away from contamination, where you make sure that the respirator is going to be taken care of. But, more importantly, any emergency apparatus needs to be stored in an area that's easily accessible in the emergency. So the person needs to know that he can go and find it and get to it quickly if he needs to. It needs to be available.
As far as maintenance is concerned and also inspections: You need to make sure that any respirator used for emergency is inspected, at minimum, monthly. It needs to be documented with a tag of who inspected it and what inspection was done--like a fire extinguisher. And it needs to be inspected before you use it. If you're carrying a respirator into an environment where there's a potential for using it for an emergency, inspect it before you carry it in.
Getting back to the mouthbit respirator: that's something that someone would clip on and hope that they never, ever have to use it. But they want to inspect it each day that they take it with them.

That's an important point. You're saying this is for any kind that might be used for emergencies, whether it's a mouthbit or escape hood, all the way up to an SCBA?

Feiner: Right up to the SCBA. Any respirator that is used for emergency needs to be inspected, it needs to be stored properly and stored where it can be found and easily accessible.

OSHA does have regulations that apply to emergency respiratory protection?

Feiner: Yes, they do. Part of 29 CFR 1910.134 outlines the emergency procedures. And they can go to the OSHA Web site and get some information. It also has the definitions for an emergency respirator and an emergency situation.

How do they define it?

Feiner: It goes through everything that needs to be done as far as where it's stored, how you clean it, how you maintain it, how you would inspect it, all of that. It's in 134. The definition of an emergency situation: It means any occurrence such as but not limited to, equipment failure, rupture of containers, or failure of control equipment that may or does result in uncontrolled significant release of an airborne contaminant.
And that, as I said, could possibly get into IDLH. So you need to know how much spilled and what's the potential for a concentration.

And I would think you'd have to also assess the potential for there to be other people on the site, beyond your employees. Visitors, contractor types, anybody.

Feiner: Absolutely. And if you have a situation like that, you want to make sure that you've tracked everybody. You're responsible not just for your own employees but for everybody on your site. That's why when you go to oil refineries or any chemical plant, there is an emergency procedure that they will make you follow. They make you sit down and watch the video and go through the training so you know what to do, what direction you need to run in, and all that good stuff, in case something happens. You always want to make sure everybody understands what's going on.
Which brings up another point: The other thing that you have to be careful about when you're discussing emergency escape is, if you are using, let's say, emergency escape breathing apparatus or an SCBA, you always want to make sure that you have sufficient air for your escape route. If you've got a five-minute bottle and your escape route is 15 minutes long, you've got a 10-minute gap where someone has to be holding their breath. Not good.

You also have to be aware that something might be blocking your escape route. As you say, you need to test this and go over your plan repeatedly, often, to make sure it works.

Feiner: It should be a site-specific plan. You can't come up with a generic plan; you've got to take a look at that site. Are there stairs that someone has to climb up? Would the stairs be blocked by something, or is there some other problem there?

Or might somebody come on the site who can't negotiate stairs?

Feiner: Exactly.

Is there a life span for respirators?

Feiner: When you're getting into anything with a cylinder, there are limitations in that aluminum cylinders need to be hydrostatically tested every five years, which is also part of your inspection process. Composite cylinders need to be hydrostatically tested every three years, and they have a 15-year max life.

Do escape hoods and mouthbit respirators have a shelf life?

Feiner: Mouthbit respirators do not have a shelf life. As long as they're stored in a clean area away from any kind of exposures, away from any high humidity or high temperatures, they'll be OK. Emergency escape breathing apparatus, because it does have that cylinder, does have the limitations of the cylinder, where you do need to have it tested every five years.

Besides OSHA, are there other sources employers can turn to when they're trying to set up a program and make sure it's effective?

Feiner: OSHA's advisory arm is one source. And insurance companies oftentimes will have resources for you.

So go to your worker's comp insurer?

Feiner: They like making their clients safe. It actually helps them. That would be a very good resource. And then there are private industrial hygienists, too, if you wanted to go that route.

Do you have some final thoughts about escape respirators for our readers?

Feiner: It's important to, first, assess your specific situation. What are the contaminants? What are the potential concentrations? Is there a potential for the area to become IDLH? Do you have sufficient oxygen? And if not, and you have the potential to become IDLH, would the air be displaced? That's something people don't think about: not only the contaminant, but is it displacing regular breathing air?
So they need to know their exact work area. They need to map out their escape route and make sure that they have the right escape respirator for the escape route. And they need to make sure that everybody is trained on how to use the respirators; they need to make sure that the respirators are stored correctly, they're stored so that people can access them in the emergency; and that they're inspected on a regular basis. That, in summary, covers it.

I think it does. That's a very good way to sum it up. You've walked through the entire assessment process. That would be a good diagram by which to run your program.

This article appeared in the January 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the January 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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