Users should know that every time they use the mask, they must inspect it before and after use, thoroughly clean it after use, air-dry it, and store it in an air-tight container.

The Brave New World of Respirator Innovation

Brisk sales and incremental innovations are the order of the day.

At this writing, 200 residents of Paulsboro, N.J., are still evacuated from their homes because of chemical fumes following a train derailment. Syrian President Assad is considering chemical warfare on his own citizens. TV's favorite post-apocalyptic series about the zombie pandemic, "The Walking Dead," has just broken cable network records with 10.5 million viewers. And then there's National Geographic Channel's "Doomsday Preppers," the highest-rated Tuesday night telecast ever, with more than 4 million viewers learning tips from survivalists.

World events and pop culture are amping up general interest in respirators, and it's no surprise that respirator dealers are doing a brisk business these days.

"Respirator sales have been up 50 percent every month for the last six months," said Todd West, general manager of, a division of He has more than 15 years' experience in respirator safety products. "The biggest increase in our sales has been Contagion Kits for people who are concerned about their families," he added.

But what, if anything, is actually new in the world of respirators? Industry experts confirm the wish list for respirator innovation continues to be lengthy:

  • Lighter
  • Less maintenance
  • Lower cost
  • Fewer parts
  • Longer lasting
  • Better visibility
  • Cooler interior
  • Minimal breathing resistance

Innovation is happening ... in baby steps. "We are always working on improving fit, function, filter life, wearability, and lowering the cost of goods," said mechanical design engineer Chris Estkowski of Applied Design Technologies, Inc. in Pullman, Mich., who specializes in respirator design. "Out of what we do, there's never a quantum leap in technology -- ever. The quantum leap is too risky. We are careful to make small improvements incrementally, made over the long term. It wouldn’t be accepted if we were too radical with the design changes."

Custom Filter CEO John Copley is a sub-supplier to 75 percent of the respirator OEMs. "The general trend we see in filtration is the desire for improved performance and efficiency from particulate removal, coupled with lower resistance to air flow," he said. "The holy grail is to take out as much as you can with as little resistance or consumption of energy, and last as long as possible. In a respirator or consumer device, we're always balancing those three needs.

"On a purely particulate filter, comfort and breathing resistance is the biggest driver in knowing when to change the filter because breathing resistance increases as the filter is loaded with contaminants. In the future, we will see manufacturers incorporating an indicator on the chemical cartridges, alerting the wearer as to when they're nearing the end of life on the cartridges. We will also see the use of more exotic and advanced composites."

Moldex-Metric, makers of disposable and reusable respirators, is tackling some of the wish list. Two years ago, the company introduced a full-face respirator that included a lens over-molded to the flange, making the product much lighter, with fewer parts and easier to maintain. "No one had ever done that before," said Bernard Mishkin, vice president of the company. "In disposable respirators, we came out with a family called Airwave, where we've put pleats into the filtering face piece, thereby doubling the surface area of the respirator, lowering breathing resistance for the end user."

Honeywell, now the largest manufacturer of respiratory equipment in all categories, is "leveraging their respirator OEM acquisitions, incorporating cross-channel technologies from companies like UVEX and North to share across the board," said, National Product Sales Manager – Respiratory, Heath R. Fleshner.

Tales from the Front
OSHA trainer Bob Carlson is a one-man brain trust on environmental policy, laws, practices, and regulations. He owns Green Knight Environmental in St. Louis, Mo., and writes the blog Hazard Hot Sheet at Carlson provided the following list of the worst respirator offenses.

1. Inability to communicate through the masks. I really like Survivair's half-face with the built-in speaking cone. Communication is mission critical when you’re dealing with hazardous chemicals. Think about this: I've seen situations where a person in a mask is trying to read this long chemical name off of a leaking drum to their job trailer via walkie-talkie, yet they are barely understandable. It's a recipe for disaster.

2. Users wearing the half-face respirator upside down. There are three things you must have to wear a respirator on the job: training on the mask, a fit test, and a medical evaluation. This guy clearly had none of the above.

3. Users pulling off the snap cover for the exhalation valve. I've seen a lot of bozos will take off the cover, rip out that little flexible one-way valve, and then re-cover it so the bosses cannot see that they’ve done so. Any modification to a respirator voids the NIOSH approval.

4. Swapping out brands of cartridges on masks. You cannot use 3M cartridges on a North mask, even if the threads seem to fit. That's not an approved system. You must have the approved cartridges for that particular system and mask model.

5. Drilling a cigarette smoker's hole in the mask so that the users can smoke while they're working. Those are the guys who are usually working in flammable atmospheres, too. Brilliant.

6. Auto body shop workers just hanging their masks on a rusty nail in the shop. So now their mask is hanging there collecting particulates, dust, metal particles, paint dust, and the strap is getting stretched out by hanging from a nail and the mask no longer fits tightly as it was designed to do. Users should know that every time they use the mask, they must inspect it before and after use, thoroughly clean it after use, air-dry it, and store it in an air-tight container. Even an oversized Tupperware container or fishing tackle box will work—anything that's big enough that you can Ziploc the bag with the mask and drop it in. I always recommend users put it in face down because I don't like the weight of the mask on the seal area.

7. Bearded guys who Vaseline their beard where the mask seals to their face. A beard will always get in the way of a good seal. I've seen some guys who actually shave a stripe out of their beard where the mask attaches, and it's high maintenance, but it works. I tell them if they get even a five o'clock shadow, they need to shave off that stubble because even that will break the seal and the mask won't protect like it's designed to do.

8. Forgetting to redo the fit test if the user has lost or gained weight. If a user has gained or lost more than 20 pounds, their face gets fatter or skinnier, and they need to redo their fit test.

9. Companies without a dedicated respirator policy. There was a lead smelter company I worked with, and their company safety people cleaned the respirators at night. The respirators came in small and medium/large. Technically, it squeaks by the regulations, but I thought it was bogus. I take fit tests and maintenance of these respirators seriously. Oddly enough, the chief safety engineer, who had worked there the whole 28 years the place had been open and wore a respirator daily, had never had a fit test himself despite having state-of-the-art quantitative fit-testing equipment on site.

10. The asbestos worker who forgot to put the canister on his mask. He joined his crew at lunch and said, "Wow, I'm really breathing easier today." They pointed out that he had been sucking asbestos dust through his facepiece all day.

11. The firefighter who forgot to turn on his SCBA air tank. Their air tanks usually last 30 minutes, depending on how hard they're exerting themselves. They have smaller tanks that theoretically have a few hours in them, but it depends on the working conditions. Sometimes people forget to turn on the air valve and just pass out. Sometimes they receive a depleted air tank. Checklists are there to protect the users. North brand has posters with a checklist.

12. Users hooking up their supplied-air respirator to nitrogen or something other than Grade D breathable air. With nitrogen, they don’t even know because they don't feel the ill effects like they would with carbon monoxide. All connectors that don't belong together really should be made incompatible.

13. The poorly thought-out fresh air supply. Sometimes with the SARs (supplied air respirators), users are hooked up to an airline system that's supposed to be connected to a clean air supply in a clean air environment, which is usually outside of the work area. I've seen too many situations where the delivery guy shows up and can't find anywhere else to park, so he leaves the van idling with the exhaust pipe right in front of the fresh air supply intake, and pretty soon the people inside start dropping like flies. It all boils down to laziness and lack of planning.

14. Wearing the wrong filters for the contaminants. These users end up with a false sense of security that results in getting them overexposed, like wearing HEPA filters when dealing with gases instead of dust.

15. Forgetting to check air quality in confined spaces. Even before you test the air for pollutants, you must test for oxygen. You run into this problem in confined spaces. There are some gases that are heavier than air that collect in low spots. There are other gases that are lighter than air. You can be up on a ladder, and if there's a nitrogen pocket in a confined space, you might pass out and fall off of the ladder. The opposite is true: You can be working outdoors in a trench or pit, and heavier-than-air gases can collect down there and still make you pass out.

Note: OSHA respiratory protection standards are found in 29 CFR 1910.134.

This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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