Knowing What You Need, Using What You Have

Many jobs requiring the use of respirators can leave employees mentally and physically drained. Tired employees are more apt to get careless and make mistakes or cut corners.

If you wonder why an employee is using a specific respirator or you see several varieties within the same work group, it is time to rework your respiratory program. Starting at the beginning with a sound awareness of your specific industry, selection of quality respirators, and training the employees on use and misuse are all critical for your program's success.

Work from the hazard to the boardroom, because both are factors in your program's success.

Knowing What You Need
All too often, small and medium-size companies allow supervisors to purchase whatever they want for PPE to keep the managers happy and the employees quiet and productive. Several employees may "prefer" different protection levels, brands, etc. Maintenance and training may not be consistent or could be absent altogether.

You end up with bits and pieces of equipment that may not be effective or workable for the protection desired. There are many pitfalls with this free permission process: budget control, proper medical evaluation, maintenance, replacement costs, consistency in use, and correct disposal can add bottom-line expenses and future liability to your program. Face the fact that you must correctly determine need and do away with "want" PPE selection!

The Hazard Analysis Component -- Do Your Homework
Dust off your safety program's JSA (Job Safety Analysis) or the more specific JHA (Job Hazard Analysis) and review the hazards of the job that needs respiratory protection. If you are foggy on the elements of a well developed JHA, refer to

A quick search of also produces a wealth of industry-specific items for review. Look at comparable company types, too, for examples. Larger corporate entities have greater staffing and often are much farther advanced in these programs and have much material already available online. Consultants and even college internships from safety or industrial hygiene programs can provide help, often for very little money and saving your safety personnel time pulled from other projects. Don't forget to involve your safety committee.

An Industry of Constant Change
The safety equipment industry is constantly evolving. There is no final ending point, just continuous improvement with the goal of the safest workplace achievable. Technologies, applications, materials, codes, and demands are changing every single day. Improved designs and less expensive products make evaluating your options an important part of your job as a safety professional. Who would not want to save your organization money and, at the same time, provide a more effective safety product to your workforce?

No one can stay current with all of the industry PPE available for respiratory protection. Face that fact and call on the experts. Manufacturers, distributors, associations, and government agencies such as OSHA, NIOSH, and CDC have a wealth of information. It saves time and energy to go to the true subject-matter experts first. Asking for industry assistance is not a sign of weakness, but of leadership.

Selection is Key
Respiratory programs are needed by nearly every industry. Whether you are in mining, construction, health care, auto repair, or firefighting, risks exist that force you to comply by identifying hazards and the appropriate respirator for the hazard.

Respirators are definitely not a one-size-fits-all type of equipment. Choose the precise equipment that protects you from the hazard, but doesn't create additional risk. For example, don't turn to a full-face respirator when a half mask will suffice. The added discomfort, weight, limited vision, and chance of overheating are created with this incorrect choice. "If some is good, then more is better" does not necessarily apply to this type of safety equipment. As a safety professional, your knowledge can be a great asset, or lack of interest a damaging liability.

In our safety work, everything revolves around preparation. Your JSA should identify the particular hazards to guard against and point you to a specific safety product. Beyond the JSA, run through some "what if" scenarios. Make sure you have plans B and C should you encounter extraordinary circumstances beyond normal operations. Examples of this might be mold, a viral outbreak, a gas leak, or a chemical spill. Is your emergency kit stocked with the appropriate respirators for these extreme situations? How about that first aid kit? And are training efforts up to date?

When your personal health and safety relies on the safety equipment that is protecting you, be sure to take care of the equipment. Disposable respirators don't apply here because they should be in new condition when worn, but for reusable respirators, proper care is of the utmost importance.

Appropriately cleaned, stored, inspected, and maintained equipment brings peace of mind to the employees relying on the equipment to get them through the day safely. Respirators that are deliberately cared for take the hoping and wishing out of the equation and let the employee focus on the task at hand.

Basic Maintenance
A schedule should be established for regular maintenance of the mask based on the hazards and work environment. Respirators should be cleaned and disinfected in a manner that does not cause damage to the respirator or put the user at risk. Any removable parts should be separated from the mask and cleaned individually; this might include valves, diaphragms, cartridges, and/or hoses. Some of these parts can rapidly deteriorate without the proper care. A warm water solution with a cleaner added should be used to wash the equipment, and a warm water rinse should be used to remove the cleaning solution from the mask. Parts need to be dried, reassembled, and the mask should be tested outside of the hazardous environment to ensure it is properly functioning. With a fresh cleaning, inspection, and tested for a good fit, the worker is ready to get back to the task at hand, knowing that the equipment will offer appropriate protection.

Improper Use
Many jobs requiring the use of respirators are physically demanding and can leave employees both mentally and physically drained. Tired employees are more apt to get careless and make mistakes or cut corners. I have personally witnessed:

  • N95s being worn upside down.
  • A full-face respirator being worn without cartridges installed while the wearer worked inside plastic containment during the demolition of a lead brick oven.
  • A shot-blasting job where the employee’s full-face absorbed the ricochet of the pellets, to the point it was so pitted he could no longer see.
  • Numerous times when the straps on a full-face were pulled so tight they caused debilitating headaches.
  • A half-face respirator that was cleaned so infrequently, the odor from inside the mask filled the room.

If you find yourself witnessing the same types of potentially dangerous errors, it is time to evaluate the situation and make it right. Step up and make things safer immediately. Is there a training issue, an employee not taking safety seriously, or is the employee just plain tired? Make the situation safer right away and worry about the root cause analysis afterward. Document, document, document -- for your protection and theirs.

Final Thoughts
When was the last time you evaluated your respirator needs? How many new processes or chemicals or other hazards have been introduced to your work site since you developed the program? Respirators are innovative pieces of safety equipment, and they continue to stay three steps ahead of our ever-changing demands. Whatever specific item your industry needs is ready and available, if you but call.

Are you utilizing the best choice of respirator for your working environment? Is the equipment being cared for properly and being worn as it is intended? Regularly review your respiratory program and compare your existing equipment to new products on the market. As you look for ways to improve your work environment, you might just want to start with your front-line respiratory needs.

Respirators are not an exception within the safety field; they are one of the most frequently utilized PPE items by employees, with no thought of adverse possibilities. It is our responsibility to steer our facilities in the right direction for respirator selection and use. If we, as safety professionals, did not demand respirator solutions to our safety challenges, where would we be today? We would still be using the wet cloth that Leonardo da Vinci was said to have suggested would help protect against a poisonous powder weapon he had invented. It was certainly not today's solution to the problem, but innovation nonetheless. Such innovation comes in many forms . . . what can you do?

As safety professionals, we know the managerial budget restrictions from the boardroom environment, which is often detached from the front-line hazard. We have to balance that with finesse to the real need for proactive respiratory selection and use. Consistency is our key . . . coupled with awareness by the line worker and managers of the goal of occupational safety and corporate responsibility. After all, few employees understand the complete budget responsibility, and fewer upper managers still have dust from the line on their shoes. Safety has to reacquaint both teams into a working team.

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

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