Emergency Escape Respirators
Time, efficiency, and protection become key factors the right respirator selection can address before a worker is ever faced with an emergency situation.
- By Paula Varsamis
- Jul 01, 2017
This article is a Q&A with Paula Varsamis, who is Product Portfolio Manager, Breathing Protection at Draeger, Inc. She specializes in respiratory protection, escape, and industrial breathing apparatuses.
1. What are the most frequently asked questions you hear from safety managers regarding respiratory protection?
When it comes to respiratory protection, safety managers are frequently searching for the best—and safest—respirator for their specific work environment, which boils down to proper selection. And while they may often juggle a multitude of questions on which types of respirators should be selected for everyday use, there also seems to be uncertainty around the best practices they can apply when choosing the correct emergency escape solution, as well.
In order to effectively identify the right respirator for both emergency escape and everyday use, safety managers can first perform a process hazard analysis, or PHA. This method is meant to ensure that the safety manager and decision makers fully recognize and understand all potential risks lurking within the workplace. Through this discovery, stakeholders can proactively plan for and implement operations that mitigate danger if standard operating procedures and fail-safes malfunction.
2. Are there any specific hazards they should be on the lookout for when performing a PHA?
While specifics will vary from work site to work site, there are three common respiratory dangers a PHA can help identify—risk of fire, release of toxins, and volatility of the environment.
Fire is a potential risk in virtually any industrial setting, but it's especially relevant when workers are exposed to heavy smoke accumulations. The National Fire Protection Association reports most fire-related deaths are due to smoke inhalation, not burns.1 As a result, industries using high heat processes or flammable materials should be fully prepared for fire hazards by equipping themselves with appropriate safety solutions, and any devices used should be durable and heat-resistant.
The release of toxins includes the emission of chemical, vapor, or gas from processes at high concentrations. Examples may include hydrogen sulfide, which can be present at an oil drilling rig; other toxins such as chlorine, which is found in disinfectants, or ammonia, which aids in the manufacturing of plastics or water purification, are frequently found in the food and beverage industry. The PHA sheds light on the various toxins workers may encounter, thus leading safety managers to compare respirator types and APFs against those dangers which workers may be exposed to in a given situation.
The third common risk to consider is the environment's volatility. It’s important to bear in mind how working in certain situations increases the possibility of an atmospheric change, which plays a large role in respirator selection. For example, in confined spaces, conditions can rapidly change—toxins can accumulate or oxygen-deficient environments can cause asphyxiation. As a result, time, efficiency, and protection become key factors the right respirator selection can address before a worker is ever faced with an emergency situation. Safety managers should take into account how much breathing air a worker requires to escape varying concentration levels, how quickly a worker can don the device, and how robust and reliable the device is from guarding against the applicable gases, vapors, and particles.
3. What other best practices can you share about conducting PHAs?
Once all potential risks have been identified through a PHA, it's important to also understand an emergency situation's degree of severity in a given workplace environment. The degree of severity is classified according to the definitions of "High," "Specific," and "General" as previously established by NIOSH.2
A "High" degree of severity refers to oxygen-deficient atmospheres (less than 19.5 percent volume oxygen levels) where unknown toxic substances are present in high or unknown concentrations. If a situation is deemed "Specific," known toxic substances will be present in high concentrations, and the "General" degree of severity scenarios involve the presence of toxic substances at levels that are considered low for the particular type of toxic substance present. Unlike "High" situations, both "Specific" and "General" scenarios have sufficient levels of oxygen.
This understanding may lead safety managers to identify a pool of respirators that could work for the potential emergency situation but may not be the right fit. The next step for safety managers is to evaluate each respirator against the potential risks identified during the PHA.
4. How can safety managers effectively distinguish the "right" respirator from their list of potential candidates?
Safety managers should narrow down their options to the respirators that will provide the most effective solution based on the PHA-identified risks. For example, if workers require protection from fire, a "Specific" hazard toxin release, and are located in a space that’s subject to atmospheric volatility, both an air escape hood and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) would be suitable choices. If they need protection from a toxin release in a "High" hazard situation with atmospheric volatility O2 deficiency, a pressure demand supplied air respirator with an escape cylinder, self-contained emergency escape breathing apparatus, or SCBA would be appropriate.
But deeper than just protection level, safety managers would be wise to understand each chosen respirator’s capabilities. Researching the benefits and drawbacks to each device yields crucial information for safety managers as they decide which product works best for their workers and work environment. For example, is there one device that has the correct combination filters that protect against the PHA-identified toxic industrial gases, vapors, and particles? Is the respirator of choice designed with a material that has a higher heat resistance than others? While these are just a few things that should be considered during the decision-making process, one can never ask too many questions when it comes to worker safety.
5. What are some "must-have" features for emergency escape respirators?
During emergency escape scenarios, ease of use and impenetrable materials are two huge "must-have" respirator features that safety managers should consider.
Ease of use is especially pertinent during emergency situations because time becomes one of the most precious commodities. As a result, the chosen device should be quick and easy to don, user friendly, and lightweight so that the emergency escape process is as efficient as possible. For example, if workers are in a situation where airborne toxins are an immediate threat and a quick evacuation is imperative, workers may find their solution in an escape hood. Oftentimes escape hoods are easy to don and doff, and they are also compact and easily transported.
The respirator's material composition is also vital to quality and reliability. Impenetrable materials help ensure that workers have the highest degree of protection in a situation that could leave them exposed to a variety of gases, vapors, and particles. Take a worker in the oil and gas industry, for example—this field can expose workers to hydrogen sulfide, or H2S, which is a corrosive, flammable gas that is life threatening, especially at high levels. Safety managers should look for a respirator that not only protects workers from H2S, but is flame resistant, as well.
6. Once safety managers have chosen their respirator of choice, what's the best way to maintain good equipment hygiene?
It's always an important step to maintain devices properly. Maintaining equipment hygiene not only extends the device's lifespan—lowering the total cost of ownership and long-term maintenance costs—but it also means the device is being kept in quality condition, allowing it to function at the greatest capacity to ensure workers are fully protected. In respiratory devices, change the filters according to manufacturer specifications, which for some devices may even double the product’s service life.
Cleaning and disinfecting the device after each use—even if the equipment is used in fit testing or training situations—and storing the equipment in containers that are protected against damage, contamination, and extreme temperatures are also maintenance best practices. Taking these steps not only helps extend the product's longevity, but it can reduce the risk of secondhand exposure to toxins, as well.
When it comes to storage, keep in mind that emergency equipment should not only be stored in an accessible location, but also should be properly packaged so that it's safe from damage and readily deployable during situations where the clock is ticking away.
If safety managers are unsure of how to properly tackle the maintenance process of emergency respiratory devices, many organizations and equipment manufacturers offer trainings to help safety managers and workers keep up to date with the latest statutory requirements and standards and can provide more best practices specific to the respirator device of choice.
This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.