The Ins and Outs of Voluntary Respirator Use

Be open about employees' exposures--this builds trust and a better working relation.

Workplace discussions of respiratory protection frequently focus on required protection. We may ask, "What about comfort? Are you feeling secure and protected in work environments from potential or imagined respiratory hazards?" We want our employees to feel comfortable at work. One problem is when they "feel" better wearing a respirator when there is no real established need or exposure that would require it.

Respirator use is required when an employee's exposure exceeds established PELs. Exposure evaluation is essential to document actual exposure levels and thus evaluate against the PEL. With this evidence in hand, the employer knows whether mandatory protection is necessary.

This brings voluntary respirator use into the picture. Grass cuttings, wood dust, sweeping, bad smells, possible airborne infections, and dust from animal/bird fecal materials are potential workplace situations where employees may desire to wear (on their own) respiratory protection. It is a long list that will continue to grow as new potential respiratory concerns emerge from familiar and new environments.

Before considering and implementing a Voluntary Respirator Use program, give serious thought to some of the following issues that will generate needed discussion at your site:

• Is your facility's respiratory protection program operational? Review the program to ensure it is up to date, knowing that few are in our busy occupational settings! New hazards, changes in work conditions, and new processes can require additional procedures.

• Where did the request come from? Is the request from a long-term employee, a new hire, or a temporary helper or community service worker? Don't laugh it off; address the request seriously. React, but do so realistically.

• Is there an actual exposure? Consider your workplace and possible exposures to employees with an eye on new processes and long-term conditions. Look at the processes and the data concerning the employee’s request. Be open about exposures--this builds trust and a better working relation.

• Is voluntary use of respirators at your site safe? Make sure everyone, from the employee to the union representative, if there is one, fully understands what is acceptable and what is safe or not safe.

• What is the selection process? Will it involve a committee? An outside consultant? Professional safety personnel on site? Controlling the purchase and selection will provide better consistency and afford the employees a better grade of correct PPE for use on site.

• Who buys it? Who pays for the PPE? Where is it stored? How about correct sizing and replacements as needed? Cleaning and storage? Don't forget to label with each employee's name if the respirator will be reused. And don't forget the requirement for a medical examination and the physician's certification of the worker's ability to wear the respirator without increased health risk.

• What about education and training? What is communicated? Who does the training? Develop your education/awareness/training handouts and have them available at all times to anyone needing access. Remember to accommodate various languages and employees who cannot read well or at all. Explain the terms to employees, NIOSH approvals, and how the PPE selection was done for the work conditions.

• Who maintains the records, and where are they maintained? All documentation must be kept secure and confidential at all times. Plan for long-term storage and as-needed archives, too, for this information. You never know when you will need to pull from it.

• Documentation is essential. Make darn sure you have the signed forms needed from each employee participating in voluntary respiratory programs. The forms and guidelines should be easily available on your intranet; keep written copies and refer to the form often in other training classes.

Getting the Program Off the Ground

In the beginning, voluntary respiratory use will generate more questions than answers. It takes time to fully implement a working program that employees accept and that you can manage. Maintaining a quality voluntary respiratory use program is tough and has a lot of logistical problems to control, especially in the beginning.

You as a safety professional must balance the employee's need for personal comfort with reality and must furnish awareness and education to everyone. It is interesting to note that many voluntary respirator requests, once met, have been abandoned once the employee was allowed to use appropriate respirators. Having the elements of the program in place often assists in resolving workplace complaints and shows the employer is willing to go the extra effort for employees' comfort and peace of mind.

One last word of caution: Ensure every employee or visitor in the area knows those wearing respirators are doing so for their own comfort, and not because there is any known exposure or toxin. This helps dissipate any hysteria and is a courtesy to everyone.

In this case, knowledge helps a great deal to reduce fear and anxiety, which improves workplace morale and safety. It raises concerns to see a crew of employees working and only one of them wearing a respirator. Objective measurement of concentrations by air monitoring, followed by clear and open communication, frequently will alleviate employees' concerns regarding their workplace risks.

This article features an accompanying checklist. Click here to download it, or visit www.ohsonline.com/mcv/resourcecenter/checklists/.

This article originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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