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Respiratory Protection [December 2010]

Published: 10th Dec 2010 in OSA Magazine

“With all the new products being developed, and chemicals being mixed to make those products, sometimes just one breath of a toxic fume could do some permanent damage to you, if not death.”

“We deal with a lot of hazardous chemicals that require respirators and if you don’t wear them, who knows what could happen. Years and years of breathing in the kind of chemicals that we deal with - a lot of them are carcinogens.”

“In a hospital setting, we have to protect against mainly infectious diseases. Well known that we have got a lot of patients now that are at risk, and we have to protect ourselves from those patients and protect our staff members.”

“We have found over the years that overexposure to lead, overexposure to silica dust, overexposure to asbestos, or any exposure to asbestos can be devastating to a worker in his future years. And it’s a major problem.”

Respiratory conditions are serious, and can result from a multitude of various exposure opportunities in the work environment. The human body can withstand days without food or water, but only minutes without oxygen.

Human beings can absorb toxins through the skin and gastrointestinal tract. But due to our constant need for oxygen, the quickest and most direct route for toxins to enter the body is through the respiratory system.

From healthcare work to manufacturing, protecting workers with proper respiratory protection is critical for lifelong respiratory health and quality
of life. Respiratory protection, personal protective equipment, and proper training are the keys to a preventative workplace programme for respiratory health.

Although industries vary from country to country, manufacturing, mining, construction and energy are prolific throughout all of Asia and the Pacific.
In turn, working in these industries presents the opportunity for workers to be exposed to hazards that cause respiratory disease.

Contact with agriculture or mineral dusts, cleaning agents, mold andallergens, metal working fluids, and chemicals without proper protection
can result in respiratory health issues.

One occupational agent may cause many diseases, just as cigarette smoke causes several distinct disorders. Conversely, one respiratory disease may have several occupational causes.

The airways come into contact with 14,000 liters of air in the workplace during a 40-hour workweek. Physical activity can increase ventilation, and
thus exposure to contaminants; up to 12 times the levels at rest. As ventilation increases, breathing shifts from nasal to a combination of oral and nasal, allowing a greater volume of air to bypass the cleansing nasopharynx, further increasing the exposure of the lower airways to inhaled materials.

Strong irritants (such as ammonia) produce an aversive response, whereas materials with little sensory effect (such as asbestos) can be inhaled for prolonged periods and result in serious injury.

Types of respiratory disease

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a term that refers to a large group of lung diseases which can interfere with normal breathing.

Occupational COPD is found in persons whose occupation involves exposure to dust, or who work in chemical and food processing, mining, storage and processing of grains and feeds, cotton-textile milling, and welding.

The most common are asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Asthma sufferers can experience a range of symptoms from coughing and wheezing to asthma attacks, where the air passages in their lungs get narrower and breathing becomes more difficult. Patients with chronic bronchitis usually have a cough and excess bronchial fluid for many years before they develop shortness of breath. Patients with emphysema usually have shortness
of breath and develop a cough and bronchial fluid during a respiratory infection, or in the later stages of the illness.

Overexposure to carcinogens can result in lung cancer, and it has been determined that at least 12 substances found in the workplace are classified as human lung carcinogens. The majority of these cancers are caused by asbestos, followed by radon, silica, chromium, cadmium, nickel, arsenic, and beryllium. Most asbestos-related lung cancers occur in pipe insulators, construction workers, ship builders and ship yard workers, and maintenance, rennovation and repair workers.

Other common types of respiratory disease include pulmonary fibrosis, which is the result of exposure to silica, talc and other dusts, pneumonia, rhinitis
and laryngitis.

Most occupational respiratory illnesses can be diagnosed on the basis of history, physical examination, chest x-ray film, and pulmonary-function tests.

Higher risk workplaces are those with obvious dust, smoke, or vapour, or those in which there is spraying, painting, or drying of coated surfaces.

Heavier exposure occurs when there is friction, grinding, heat, or blasting, when very small particles are generated, and in enclosed spaces. For many workers, symptoms may improve while the worker is away from the work environment for a prolonged period of time. Workers who smoke cigarettes may experience greater symptoms.

Severity of respiratory disease will vary by worker, depending on overall health, metabolism, heredity, and other factors that may or may not contribute to disease. Treatment for occupational respiratory diseases is usually identical to treatment for non-occupational forms of the illness.

Management of the disease includes either a change in the work practices that led to the disease, or restrictions regarding what the patient can and cannot do.

Respiratory protection

Many countries have implemented government standards which require workers in hazardous environments to wear personal protective equipment, including respiratory protection. The United States OSHA, the European Agency for Safety & Health at Work,

Safe Work Australia, and the International Labour Oraganization, have all written standards and guidelines to enforce respirator use in the workplace.

Respirators protect workers against insufficient oxygen environments, harmful dusts, fogs, smokes, mists, gases, vapours, and sprays.

There are three main types of respirators used in the workplace:

• Dust masks
• Air-purifying respirators
• Atmosphere-supplying respirators

In manufacturing, there are activities that can send particulates into the surrounding air. Just as potentially harmful are environments that contain biological hazards: healthcare workers can be exposed to infectious agents such as drug-resistant tuberculosis; while, in agriculture, mold spores in grain and hay can lead to a debilitating illness known as ‘farmer’s lung’.

Used properly, dust mask respirators, also called filtering face pieces, can filter out these airborne hazards and allow you to breathe uncontaminated air.

The dust mask is a type of air-purifying respirator. The entire face piece is composed of a filtering medium that traps airborne contaminants before they can reach the user’s respiratory system. Dust masks provide effective protection against certain airborne hazards, but they have limitations that you must know and understand.

It is not safe to use dust masks in environments where the concentration of contaminants is very high, or the particulates in the air are extremely small. Some airborne hazards, such as toxic gasses and vapours, are ableto pass right through a dust mask to the user.

Another important limitation to remember is that dust masks do not increase or supply oxygen. An environment with an oxygen level below 19.5 percent is known as oxygen deficient, and a dust mask provides no protection here.

The basic air-purifying respirator includes a face piece or mask that’s secured to the head with straps, and a cartridge that contains an air-purifying element. Each time the user inhales, air is pulled through the element and captured, purifying the air.

A variation on the basic air-purifying respirator is the powered air-purifying respirator, or PAPR. The PAPR uses a fan to blow clean air into the mask. This provides two advantages: breathing is easier because the fan does the work of pulling air through the filter; also, purified air fills the mask creating a positive pressure that helps prevent toxins from leaking into the mask.

Air-purifying respirators are capable of eliminating many types of airborne toxins, but each respirator is specially designed to filter out particular toxins. To be effective, the type of respirator used must be matched to the hazard. With this in mind, air-purifying respirators can be subdivided into three types:

Particulate, Gas and Vapour, and Combination.

Particulate filters are used when dusts, fibres, fumes or mists are present. As the worker breathes in, contaminants become trapped in the filter and therefore do not enter the lungs. Gas and Vapour removing respirators use an absorbing material to purify air. To work properly, the absorbing material must be carefully matched to the gas or vapour to be eliminated. As the name suggests, Combination respirators use more than one type of filter at the same time to remove both particles and gas or vapour from the air.

In oxygen-deficient environments, or in locations where contamination levels can be high enough to overwhelm filters and absorbents, and allow airborne hazards to reach the worker’s respiratory system, an air purifying respirator is
not enough.

Atmosphere-supplying respirators can be subdivided into two types: supplied-air respirators and self-contained breathing apparatus, or SCBAs
(Self-contained breathing apparatus).

Supplied-air respirators use a compressor or pump to provide breathing air through a small diameter hose. This respirator’s advantages include less weight being borne by the user, and its ability to provide protection for an extended period of time. Disadvantages come from the fact that the user is tethered to an air hose, with limited mobility and the potential for punctures or other damage to the hose. Because of these limitations, when supplied-air respirators are used in atmospheres that are classified as immediately dangerous to life and health, they must have an attached auxiliary emergency tank - if the respirator malfunctions, the emergency tank provides a way to escape unharmed.

SCBAs have an air supply that is carried by the user, usually in a tank on the user’s back. These respirators can be used in atmospheres classified as immediately dangerous to life and health. They’re highly mobile which makes them ideal for emergency response or rescue work. Disadvantages include the bulkiness and weight of the equipment, and the limited amount of air that can be carried in a single tank - usually between 20 to 26 minutes worth.

Some SCBAs are classified as escape only SCBAs and provide air for a limited amount of time; they are designed specifically for emergency escape and should never be used for other purposes.

Training and education

Training is an important component of all occupational safety functions, including respiratory protection. There are specific actions workers need to understand regarding the selection, use and care of respiratory protection. Repiratory protection loses its effectiveness when not used properly, negating the efforts of employers and workers in preventing respiratory diseases.

As discussed in this article, there are numerous job functions and industries where respiratory hazards exist. Repiratory hazards range from less severe to extreme.

It is critical to conduct a hazard assessment on the work environment to determine the most effective form of respiratory protection equipment. The air in the work environment must be sampled and analysed to determine which toxins are present and at what levels. Where there is the potential for an atmosphere to be oxygen deficient, oxygen levels must also be determined. Once this information is gathered, the capacities and limitations of various respirators must be considered before a final decision is made.

After you have assessed the work environment to determine the proper type of respiratory protection, the worker must ensure the equipment fits their body correctly. During this test, workers try on several masks and perform exercises that simulate movement in the workplace. As the worker performs these movements, a test agent is released nearby that is either irritating to the nasal passage, or has a distinct odour or taste. If the worker cannot detect the test agent through the mask, then a good fit is assumed.

The mask prevents unfiltered, contaminated air from being breathed in, and if there are any gaps or leaks around the mask, the respirator cannot do its job effectively. For this reason, where the mask comes into contact with the skin, the seal must be tight. Eyeglasses, facial hair, including razor stubble, or facial scars may also interfere with an airtight seal, allowing toxins to bypass the respirator.

Each time you wear a respirator it is important to perform a user seal check. The manufacturer’s instructions for your respirator will provide specific information on whether you must perform a positive pressure check, a negative pressure check, or both to make sure that an adequate seal has been achieved.

To perform a positive pressure check, close off the exhalation valve with the palm of the hand. Gently exhale into the face piece until positive pressure causes a slight bulging. Hold your breath and look for signs of outward air leakage. If you discover that the seal is not secure, adjust the mask and
repeat the seal check until a good seal is achieved.

To perform a negative seal check, close off the cartridge inlets with your hand or by replacing the filter seal. Inhale gently so that negative pressure causes the face piece to collapse slightly. Again, adjust the mask and repeat the procedure if you detect leakage.

Respiratory equipment must be in good working order for it to perform correctly. Employees need to be aware of when respiratory equipment does not meet proper condition standards and should no longer be worn. Some respirators, such as dust masks, are only meant for short term use. It is also important to change the filters on air-purifying respirator masks when they are used to their maximum. The manufacturer should provide guidelines for equipment usage.

While the problem of airborne toxins in the workplace is a serious one, these hazards can be minimised or eliminated through the understanding and use of a respiratory protection programme.

Training your employees to recognise hazards, and proper fit and use of respiratory protection is extremely important for success. By implementing procedures and guidelines in your workplace and following regulatory standards, you can ensure your employees are protected against the hazards that cause debilitating respiratory diseases, ensuring your workers are able to contribute to your organisation’s success and have a long, healthy and happy life.


(UMMC), U. o. (2010). Respiratory Diseases. Retrieved November 12, 2010, from www.umm.edu/respiratory
William S.Beckett, M. (2000). Occupational Respiratory Diseases. The New England Journal of Medicine , 8.
Summit Training Source, Inc; Respiratory Protection Training Series

Published: 10th Dec 2010 in OSA Magazine


Sara Wesche

Sara Wesche has been with Summit Training Source for more than nine years. Her creative skill and expert writing abilities led her to the Marketing Specialist position, and ultimately to managing the marketing department in 2003. Sara’s focus has been developing Summit’s World Wide Web presence, to generate sales leads through multiple medias, and to create marketing support materials that solidify Summit’s position as the complete EH&S training solution provider. Sara graduated from Michigan State University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication. Sara can be reached at SaraW@safetyontheweb.com or at SafetyTraining1 on Twitter.

Summit Training Source has been an environmental, health and safety training innovator for more than 29 years. In excess of 40,000 clients worldwide trust the health and safety of their employees and work sites to Summit’s expert training capabilities. With at least 600 environmental, health, and safety training titles in multiple formats, including Online, DVD, Streaming Video, Summit Elements, and Online OSHA accepted 10 & 30 Hour, Summit provides proven content that delivers the business results expected in today’s competitive global environment.

Summit programmes create an awareness and respect of workplace hazards and reduce incidents, accidents, and their associated costs. Summit was the first training provider to offer interactive CD-ROM training, leading the way into the interactive technology age. Summit’s online platform, Summit Trainingweb®, offers customers global consistency, 24/7 availability, and is based on adult learning theories to create a more comprehensive and engaging programme. Summit’s Online OSHA 10 & 30 Hour training for Construction and General Industry has been authorised by OSHA.

Summit’s programmes are effective, offering a return on investment to customers. Our continued mission is to provide the highest quality training programmes available, meeting industry needs and complying with all regulatory guidelines, enhancing the future productivity, growth, and bottom line results for all our customers.

For free previews of any Summit programme or access to Summit Trainingweb® online courses, call 800-842-0466 or visit http://www.safetyontheweb.com


Sara Wesche





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