Respiratory Safety: An Interview with Industry Experts

Respirators, when used correctly, can be an effective layer of protection for many tasks in and around a chemical plant.

Imagine you are an operator at a Chlor-Alkali facility. While performing your morning rounds, a leak develops in nearby piping. It isn't visible, but you are suddenly aware of the distinct aroma. It's your first day doing rounds alone, as you just passed the operator exam last week. Thoughts quickly come to mind, all at once: "Where is the chlorine escaping? Did I tighten that valve all the way? Maybe I should go investigate." But then you recall the escape respirator drills from training. Unclipping and donning your escape respirator, looking around for others in the area, and glancing down to make sure your radio is in hand, you head for the exit.

When in fresh air, you radio the control room. The lead operator commends you for not investigating while using your escape respirator and acknowledges how tempting it is to "just check one thing" while using a respirator not fit for the job. The lead operator alerts the surrounding area that a leak investigation is under way and to steer clear, then instructs you to go back to the control room to upgrade your respiratory protection and take someone with you to investigate the source of the leak.

Relieved to have additional help, you and your partner discover it was indeed the valve as you suspected, tighten it, and follow the air monitoring and reporting protocols. After the chlorine concentration falls back to zero on the perimeter and handheld monitors, the lead operator gives an all-clear.

For personnel who are involved in the manufacture, handling, or emergency response of hazardous chemicals, proper training on respirator safety is extremely important. We talked to two industry experts, Brian Dailey (Global Emergency Response Leader and National Pro Board Certified Hazardous Materials Technician, The Chemours Company) and Vic McMurray (Responsible Care Director, Olin Corporation), to learn more about common misconceptions regarding respirator safety from their extensive knowledge and firsthand experience in the field. Combined, Brian and Vic have more than 64 years of experience in the chemical industry. In this interview, they share several important insights about respirator safety that are sometimes overlooked.

Interviewer: "Why is proper training on respirator safety so important?"

Brian: "You can end up putting yourself in a life-threatening situation without even knowing it, without the proper training. A correlation I would make is, I have children and I wouldn't put my 16-year-old behind the wheel and say, 'Go drive the car.' Without the proper training, you become a threat to yourself, basically. You have to know how the respirator functions and the principles behind how they work and when they don't work before you can get the benefit from the respirator. So you can actually put yourself in a bad situation, thinking that you're protected, and you're really not if you don't have the right training.

"Something else to add is that, unfortunately, improper respirator use may not affect someone right away. So you can have an acute exposure, which you would see immediate implications and negative impact to the user right away, but on the other hand, without the training and the proper use, you can also end up with a chronic exposure over time. If you work with chemicals all the time and you are not trained properly or you're not wearing the right size respirator, the exposure may be chronic, and you may not see the effects for maybe 20 years."

Vic: "Let's face it, the respiratory system of the human body is very, very sensitive. So anything that enters your lungs, by design, your lungs are trying to absorb. Any time you're breathing in something acidic, it causes the lungs not to work properly. It can be a short-term impact, or it could be a long-term impact. That's how you breathe in oxygen—that is how you survive. Your lungs are critical to life, they are an 'essential to life' organ. The main reason for respiratory protection is ensuring we do not accidentally expose ourselves."

Interviewer: "What aspects of respirator safety do you feel are often overlooked, that could lead (or often do lead) to serious injuries?"

Brian: "The thing that is often overlooked is proper fit testing, and not just fit testing but once you're fit tested, using the respirator that you're fit tested on. For instance, in the chemical industry you have many different needs for respirators, so you have different sizes. You have the ability to get a small, medium, or large respirator. Well, as part of the fit testing process, they pick the size respirator that you're supposed to wear—and that's what you're fit tested on. I have seen in the field in the past, when operators don't have that particular respirator available—for instance, they tested on a medium and they pick up a large respirator because it's still the same type of respirator, it's just a different size. They will put that on because it's still a respirator and they say, 'I'm supposed to wear one, I'm just going to use this one,' instead of taking the time to get the size that is the right size respirator for them. I think that is a big one.

"Another one is proper selection of cartridges. For cartridge type respirators, there are many different cartridges that are used for different chemicals. A lot of us work in industry with different chemicals that have different needs for different cartridges. For instance, in the hazmat world, there [are] organic vapor cartridges or dust cartridges. So picking the right cartridge is critical. You have to know what the chemical is in order to pick the right cartridge. I think a lot of times, people will use whatever cartridge they first find, because they think any cartridge will work.

"Another mistake that we see is people will use a cartridge and think that that cartridge is good forever. They'll put it in their locker and use it the next day—but really the chemical has already broken through, so they're not being protected. Knowing the life of the cartridge and understanding the manufacturer's recommendations for the use of that cartridge is very important.

"I also want to add that if someone is in a respirator, air monitoring is a must. Especially in a hazmat situation or emergency response situation, air monitoring is such a critical piece of the whole process. Our lungs and respiratory system are so fragile and are really the main point of entry for many of the chemicals we deal with, that air monitoring is a critical piece before we put anyone in a respirator. Life safety is a number one priority and without air monitoring information, we can't properly select the right respiratory protection.

"It is also important to do a positive and negative pressure test every time you put a respirator on. So even though we fit test annually, which is an OSHA requirement, it is critical we check that positive and negative pressure to make sure there is a good seal every time we put it on. That is another thing that is often overlooked."

Vic: "One common misconception with emergency escape respirators is that, people think 'Well, I don’t have to wear it, I just need to have it near me.' For some people, 'near me' is 'on my person,' 'in my truck,' or '50 feet away.' The problem is, for a lot of chemicals, the nose is a very poor alert system and with something such as vinyl chloride, for example, you are actually overexposed before you even smell it. So that's one fallacy, that 'my nose will tell me when I need to wear it.' But the second fallacy is that with something acute, for example chlorine or HCl, what happens is you take a breath and then you kind of panic because your lungs are going to stop breathing as soon as they detect something like chlorine. They do not want to inhale that substance. When your lungs stop breathing, you immediately panic.

"A lot of people's reaction will be to run. But with a lot of chemicals, at the dangerous exposure level, you may not be able to see it. So which way do you run? If you can't see it, you don't know! People will panic and then take their next breath, which could be a big breath of chlorine or another chemical, and now you've created a dangerous situation for yourself. My point is, we need to stop using our lungs as the canary in the coal mine.

"One of the other biggest misconceptions regarding escape respirators is, 'If I have it on me, then I am protected.' Normally these respirators come in packaging that is very difficult to open. I often do simulations with people and have them pretend there is a leak and they need to don their respirator in 10 seconds or less. But because of the excessive packaging, I see them struggle and virtually never get the respirator on in time. That's one fallacy—it's there, but it really isn't readily available and useable.

"Another overlooked aspect is that we need to test these respirators. What I mean by test is just simply breathe through it. Several times, I have seen people put a respirator in their mouth and then take a breath, and all of a sudden, they get a bunch of carbon in their mouth. The respirator has obviously been damaged or broken. So now they are faced with, 'Do I breathe chlorine, or do I breathe carbon?' Neither one is a good choice. Simply testing the respirator before use could prevent this issue.

"A third issue is people assuming they know how to use the respirator without the proper training. I've seen people put nose clips attached to the respirator up their nose instead of on the outside of their nose. It sounds comical, but they could really put themselves in a dangerous situation if they are not properly trained how to use the respirator.

"Lastly, going back to my previous point, I want to reiterate that people overestimate how much time that they have to don a respirator. People think they are going to have minutes to get a respirator, so they will keep their respirator in their truck 30 feet away or somewhere not on their body, because maybe it was an inconvenience to carry to the work site. They might think they have up to five minutes to retrieve and don the respirator when the reality is, they DON'T!"

Interviewer: "How can workers be prepared to handle respirator failures or malfunctions?"

Brian: "I will give you an example here with a supplied air respirator, with an escape cylinder. We go through our training, we watch a video, we learn how to put this equipment on, but many people don't really train with loss of air and being able to get that escape respirator on. Being in a harmful atmosphere and having your supplied air respirator fail and not knowing how to use your escape cylinder, that's not the time you want to figure out how to use it. Something that we do for training is, while we are training while no one is at risk, first we go through how they work. We walk the technicians or the plant operators through the use of the supplied air respirator and escape cylinder. Then, in a controlled environment where they are not going to be harmed, we shut the air off and have them get to the escape cylinder and get the air turned on. By doing that in a controlled environment, it takes away that panic and fear had it been in a real situation, and that goes right back to training."

Interviewer: "What's the most shocking respiratory incident you have ever witnessed/heard of? How would the proper use of a respirator have made the difference?"

Brian: "I am also an assistant fire chief for a volunteer fire department. I've been a firefighter for 24 years. The scariest incident that I have ever witnessed was when a firefighter in an SCBA was in a structure and the firefighter was in too long and was not aware of the conditions they were in and their facepiece softened. We were using positive pressure air systems, so the positive pressure air started pushing the facepiece out since it was soft, and made it into a bubble. Luckily, the firefighter was able to get outside before it failed completely. But they were that close to singeing their lungs, because in order for that to melt, it had to have been well over 400 degrees.

"So it's important to recognize the conditions that you are in and be extremely vigilant when you're wearing a respirator to the conditions around you. Ask yourself, 'Do I have the right equipment? Should I even be in this situation?' Being able to make those decisions, especially in the emergency response world, you have to be constantly be reevaluating the conditions."

To Conclude
When it comes to respiratory safety, it is not enough to simply understand the basics of this type of personal protective equipment (PPE). Users also must be aware of the most commonly overlooked aspects of respirator safety. When using respirators as a form of PPE, individuals should keep these "Do's and Don'ts" in mind:

  • Always use the respirator they were fit tested on.
  • Select the correct cartridge for the job.
  • Know the life of the cartridge—change the cartridge as necessary.
  • Perform a positive and negative air pressure test each time a respirator is worn.
  • Use properly calibrated and maintained air monitoring devices in accordance with your company's procedures and safe work permits.
  • Ensure escape respirators are easily accessible. This means free of any excessive packaging and nearby (preferably on your person).
  • Always test respirators before each use and check for any damages.
  • Ensure they have undergone the proper training and drills on how to use the respirator.
  • Perform drills to ensure you are able to quickly and efficiently don an escape respirator.

One common point that both experts stressed was that our respiratory system is both fragile and critical. By keeping these tips in mind, professionals in the hazardous chemicals industry can protect themselves and others from serious injury.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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