Top OSHA Violations Remind Employers of the Need for Continued Attention to Respirators

Top OSHA Violations Remind Employers of the Need for Continued Attention to Respirators

Selecting the right respirators for your employees is essential to keeping them protected, but how do you know what kind to choose?

Earlier in 2022, OSHA released data on the 10 most commonly cited violations for the prior fiscal year (October 1, 2020 to September 30, 2021). Topping its list were fall prevention, respiratory protection, ladders and hazard communication. Despite the ongoing challenges of COVID-19, a virus that heightened the world’s mindfulness surrounding respiratory health, OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Standard (29 CFR 1910.134) remains a top industrial infringement.

Air pollutants and gases are common within industrial environments and many can be toxic. According to the EPA, toxic air pollutants include benzene, found in gasoline; perchloroethylene, emitted from some dry-cleaning processes; and methylene chloride, used as a solvent and paint stripper by a number of industries. Examples of other air toxins include dioxin, asbestos, toluene, and metals such as cadmium, mercury, chromium and lead compounds. With so many toxins in industrial workplaces, it is understandable that OSHA would issue guidelines to help protect workers from their potentially hazardous impacts.

Paragraph (a) of OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Standard (29 CFR 1910.134) requires 1. the use of feasible engineering controls as the primary means to control air contaminants; and 2. employers to provide employees with respirators that are “applicable and suitable” for the purpose intended when “such equipment is necessary to protect the health of the employee.”

For employers, selecting the most “applicable and suitable” respirator for a specific application is not always obvious. That may explain why improper respiratory protection is repeatedly one of the top five most common OSHA violations. Some of the most frequent mistakes involve atmospheric monitoring, not using the proper NIOSH-approved masks, medical evaluations and fit testing and training.

  1. Monitoring. To know what type of respirator works in a particular environment, companies must not only be familiar with the contaminants potentially present in the air, but also their base exposure levels and how those levels could increase as employees perform certain operations. That requires static monitoring of a space, as well as monitoring changes as employees move through and work within a space by equipping them with personal air monitoring devices (gas detectors). 
  1. NIOSH Approved Respirators. When hazards cannot be eliminated, respiratory protection is required. For applications where there can be a high level of exposure to hazards, the employer may determine in their Respiratory Protection Program (“RPP”) that an atmosphere that is Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health (IDLH) must be expected.

According to 29 CFR 1910.134 the employer shall provide the following respirators for employee use in IDLH atmospheres:

  1. A full facepiece pressure demand Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) for a minimum service life of 30 minutes, or
  2. A combination full facepiece pressure demand supplied-air respirator (SAR) with auxiliary self-contained air supply.

For work areas that are tested to have non-IDLH atmospheres, employers still cannot order just any dust mask or respirator. An expert must first analyze the environment to determine its air quality and the appropriate respirator required. Then, employers must select a respirator that meets or exceeds a level of employee protection according to NIOSH’s Assigned Protection Factors (APFs) appropriate to the operation for which the respirator is being used. 

  1. Medical Evaluations. Before wearing any respirator, workers must first complete a medical evaluation using OSHA’s mandatory medical questionnaire or an equivalent method. The evaluation, which shall be conducted by a physician or licensed health care professional (PLHCP), is designed to determine a worker’s general health as it relates to their ability to wear a respirator. It is recommended that medical evaluations be completed annually or every other year depending on the respirator, changes in an employee’s health condition and the nature of the work being conducted.
  1. Fit Testing. Companies are also commonly cited for not conducting proper or frequent quantitative or qualitative fit testing. Masks that rely on a mask-to-face-seal must be fit tested to validate an air-tight seal in accordance with OSHA’s Fit Testing Procedures (Mandatory), found at Appendix A to 29 CFR 1910.134. The fit test must be performed 1. prior to first use; 2. when there is a change in respirator’s model, style or size; 3. when there’s a physical facial change in the person wearing the mask; and 4. at least annually.

Employees shall be permitted to select a preferred respirator from various pre-approved models and sizes. Then, a fit test determines if the selected respirator is able to be positioned properly on the nose, cheeks and chin; provides room for eye protection; and allows the wearer to talk and breathe freely. Qualitative fit test procedures examine an employee’s subjective sensory response—their taste and smell—to particular test agents, such as fragrant isoamyl acetate (banana oil), a sweet saccharin solution, Bitrix™ (that causes a bitter taste), or an irritant smoke. Quantitative fit testing uses a machine to measure the actual amount of leakage into the facepiece and does not rely upon the user’s sense of taste, smell, or irritation in order to detect leakage. The respirators used during this type of fit testing will have a probe attached to the facepiece that will be connected to the machine by a hose.

OSHA shares its list of top violations each year to remind companies of common workplace risks. Still, year after year, properly establishing and managing an effective RPP proves to be a challenge for many companies. The COVID-19 virus certainly added to employers’ obligations and considerations related to selecting and sourcing appropriate respirators for workers. Despite the changes and challenges, however, adhering to strict safety standards, which includes instituting appropriate respiratory protection practices, remains acutely necessary to protect the workforce. An effective RPP should focus on the hazards employees are exposed to everyday in conjunction with performing their job-related tasks so as to prevent workplace accidents.

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