Providing the Right Escape Protection for Diverse User Groups

To provide the right protection, it's important to consider the end users, their environment, your evacuation program, and the threats they may encounter.

Providing escape respirator protection is a challenging job. This job becomes more complicated when the potential user base consists of plant operators, control room operators, maintenance staff, field personnel, visitors, contractors and administrative personnel. In order to provide the right protection, it's important to consider the end users, their environment, your evacuation program, and the threats they may encounter. This first article in the series focuses on the end user groups and their specific needs.

Wearers' Concerns, Selection Factors
By its very nature, an escape event is triggered by a very abnormal incident or release, thereby creating uncertainty and concern in the mind of the potential wearer. If you're not used to wearing a respirator as part of your normal job, the additional of respiratory protection only complicates this anxiety. The use of an escape respirator by "non-respirator" personnel can enhance the feeling of panic in emergency situations and create physiological and psychological stress. While it is less likely, these stress factors also can occur with the trained user. In a panic situation, users become very sensitive to the changes of the normal respiratory pattern, particularly to the additional breathing resistance caused by filters, valves, etc. In many cases, the non-professional users can translate these phenomena to suffocation due to exposure to hazardous contaminants.

In order to minimize the stress of wearing a respirator and enhance the effectiveness of escape operations, the EHS professional must consider and examine the following factors when selecting an escape mask for their particular situations:

  • Simplicity and reliability of donning. During stressful situations, users of escape masks should be able to don the products easily without having to perform a series of complicated operations, such as having to adjust nosecup straps, attach hoses, remove filter caps, or other non-essential operations. Escape masks are not worn on a routine basis, and thus systems offering the most intuitive operating features are the most desirable. Using these criteria may sound straightforward but difficult to do by simply reading literature and specifications on potential products. Prior to purchasing a system, potential buyers should request units from the manufacturer or distributor in order to perform their own assessment of the "usability" of the product. In this manner, specific needs of the intended plant site, along with inputs from the various user groups, can be evaluated and considered in the final decision.
  • Physical condition of the population. The age and general physical condition of the intended user population is a critical factor in selecting the appropriate product. Individuals with respiratory ailments may be more keenly aware of changes in breathing resistance; consequently, looking for products that minimize this breathing resistance is desirable. Based on significant experience working with the civilian populations, it is known that breath-assisted devices are better tolerated by civilian users and most certainly by those with respiratory ailments (e.g., asthma). Breath-assisted devices provide also much higher protection levels than negative-pressure respirators.
  • Field of vision. In order to reduce feelings of claustrophobia and enhance the overall comfort of the wearer, systems that offer wide, unobstructed fields of view are desirable. Better visibility allows wearers to feel more comfortable in their surroundings and to understand evacuation instructions more readily. They are able to clearly see escape routes. For office personnel required to leave a building, this can reduce the evacuation time and increase overall evacuation effectiveness.
  • Wearer recognition. To reduce feelings of stress and minimize the encumbrance of wearing a mask, systems that do not obstruct the facial features of the wearer are more desirable for the user and those around him.
  • Communication. The ability to communicate in an evacuation scenario is extremely important, both to those providing instructions and those listening to instructions. Systems that do not obstruct the mouth of the wearer help to support two-way communications in the most natural manner.
  • Ease of training. Robust respiratory programs allow for extensive training on respiratory devices that are used regularly. In the case of emergency escape respirators, hands-on trainings are often minimal and not routine for operators and may be even less for visitors, contractors, administrative employees, and others. A strong consideration in an emergency escape program should be the ease of donning and use of the escape device with the understanding that the user most likely will have limited training when he or she needs to use the respirator.

In summary, when selecting the proper escape respirator, end users' diverse needs, their environment, and threats they may encounter must be considered. This article focused on how group needs (e.g., plant personnel versus administrative personnel) are different and how "non-regular respirator users" may react to escape devices. Lastly, it recommends on-site evaluations of various products to determine the best approach for your specific user groups and evacuation scenario.

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