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Life Preserving RPE

Published: 01st Jun 2012 in OSA Magazine

rpeDavid Lummis, CEO of the British Safety Industry Federation, discusses the importance of correctly fitting Respiratory Protective Equipment, the factors to take into account when selecting such equipment and UK initiatives that have been set up to help tackle these issues.

Thousands of workers currently suffer from breathing and lung problems caused or made worse by inhaling harmful quantities of dust, fumes or other airborne contaminants at work. These include asthma, COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), pneumoconiosis and silicosis - diseases that can prove to be fatal. The workplace can produce certain gases, dusts, fumes and vapours that, when exposed to for a long period of time, can cause irreversible damage to the lungs.

Many of these diseases lie dormant and do not completely develop until many years later, by which time it is too late. In order to combat this problem it is vital that workers protect themselves from the airborne contaminants and toxic substances that are present in the workplace by using Respiratory Protection Equipment (RPE).

RPE is a type of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that is designed specifically to protect the wearer against inhaling hazardous substances. It should be noted that RPE must only be used as the last line of defence as although it protects the wearer, it may interfere with work, it might be uncomfortable to wear and intrude into normal activities and, if it is used or maintained incorrectly, it is unlikely to give adequate protection. Correctly fitting and maintained RPE is therefore essential to protect workers from airborne risks.

The need for correctly fitting RPE for workers

Research carried out by the British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF) and the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has highlighted concerns that RPE is not being effectively selected, used and maintained in a significant proportion of workplaces where a respiratory hazard exists, leaving workers at risk.

Current UK and European laws and regulations place a heavy legal obligation on employers to adhere to the requirements set out and to ensure that they provide a safe working environment. UK laws stipulate that RPE used at work must be:
• Adequate and provide the wearer with effective protection
• Suitable for the intended use
• CE marked
• Selected, used and maintained by properly trained people
• Correctly maintained, examined and tested
• Correctly stored

While these laws may not be translated worldwide, this should be something that all employers strive to provide their workforce, whether mandatory or not.
For example, in an oxygen deficient or other hazardous environment, the following occur more quickly: increased breathing rates, accelerated heartbeat and impaired thinking or coordination; even a momentary loss of coordination can be devastating if it occurs while a worker is performing a potentially dangerous activity. The use of RPE in such instances is pivotal for a healthy and safe workforce; however, many workers are unaware of the danger of incorrectly fitted RPE and although wearing the correct equipment, are still at risk of developing an illness.

It should be noted that many types of RPE do not supply additional oxygen; therefore in environments where there may be oxygen deficiciency, correct selection of RPE is critical. Negative pressure RPE is not suitable in oxygen deficient environments.

Identifying the risks

In order to select the correct RPE a proper risk assessment of the hazards presented to the workforce needs to be carried out, ideally by a qualified professional. In large organisations this may be the company’s own dedicated health and safety officer, whereas smaller organisations may need to engage an outside consultant.

The risk assessment will take into account industry benchmarks and legal standards, plus a number of areas will be covered including identification of the hazard, the workplace exposure level, measuring the concentration of any contaminate, the length of exposure, the workload of the person wearing the RPE and their general fitness levels. It is only once the risk assessment has been completed and the various factors have been measured against the correct standards that the employer is able to make an informed decision about the type of RPE required to protect workers in any given situation.

It should be noted that RPE should only be used as a last resort if other means of controlling substances hazardous to health are inadequate and, additionally, it should be used in conjunction with other means of control.

In atmospheres where there may be insufficient oxygen (for example in confined spaces such as tanks or pipes), it is essential that oxygen levels are measured and where required, breathing apparatus (BA) is supplied to ensure the workers receive breathable air. It should be noted that respirators just using filters to remove airborne hazards do not supply any additional oxygen and should not be used in oxygen deficient atmospheres. Specialist advice may be required to ensure that correct breathing apparatus is supplied.

Types of RPE

Following the risk assessment, the advisor will be able to suggest the correct RPE. The right respirator will be specifically for a particular hazard or hazards, offer the correct amount of protection and be suitable for the user/the work and the environment.

There are two types of RPE: respirators and breathing apparatus. Respirators are used to filter contaminants and harmful particles found in the workplace and must never be used in confined spaces, areas of low oxygen levels or very high contaminant levels. Breathing apparatus uses breathing quality air from a supplied source such as an air cylinder or air compressor.

Factors that can influence RPE selection

As well as choosing the right respirator to suit the job, a number of additional factors can also influence the selection of RPE:
• Worker medical condition - Wearing respiratory protection can pose a physical burden if the wearer suffers from an existing or previous medical condition. When a worker’s medical condition would prohibit restrictive breathing conditions, negative pressure respirators would not be an appropriate choice
• Worker comfort - Worker preferences should be taken into consideration during the respirator selection process. Comfort and wearability is important - if a mask is uncomfortable then it’s difficult to get someone to wear it
• Freedom of movement - Some jobs require more mobility than others, this is something that needs to be taken into account
• Facial anthropometry - The shape, size and characteristics of a face can influence the choice of equipment
• Facial hair - Any facial hair, whether stubble, moustaches or beards can affect the fit of RPE. Essentially a close fitting mask should not have facial hair interfering with its fit; however, if facial hair needs to be retained for religious, ethnic or other reasons, alternative RPE needs to be carefully selected
• Product compatibility - When other personal protective equipment must be worn it is important that they work together; for example, some respirators may affect the performance of goggles
• Field of vision and good verbal communication - Some jobs require one or both of the aforementioned; RPE can affect this, so careful selection is required
The market is extensively supplied through various manufacturers of RPE products. This can present an overwhelming choice of which product to select for the decision maker. By having a risk assessment carried out and RPE recommendations made, this will help make the selection process easier. Comfort, choice and practicality in use will be among the key decisions when selecting the equipment.

Clean Air? Take Care!

The UK has developed a number of initiatives to help raise awareness of RPE and the importance of its proper use. These initiatives have been very successful within the UK and could provide inspiration and education opportunities for other countries where understanding of the importance of RPE is not as developed. The BSIF and the HSE, together with a number of other safety industry stakeholders, have developed the ‘Clean Air? Take Care!’ campaign. Research by both the BSIF and HSE has highlighted two major concerns.

Firstly, RPE is often not being selected properly and secondly, in a significant number of companies, RPE is not being used at all, even though there is a clear respiratory hazard. This campaign aims to help reduce occupational respiratory disease caused by ineffective use of respiratory equipment in the workplace by raising awareness of the issues that surround it, and highlighting the importance of selecting the correct respiratory protective equipment.

The HSE has highlighted that approximately 12,000 deaths occur each year in Great Britain from respiratory diseases caused by occupational exposure. By getting involved in campaigns that raise awareness for clean air and by working together, we can substantially reduce that number.

Ensuring the correct fit

Poor or uncomfortable fit is one of the main excuses for workers’ reluctance to wear the necessary Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) and it is a frightening fact that the fit of the equipment can in many cases mean the difference between life and death, or at the very least, the onset of long term respiratory problems.

In 2009 another collaborative project called ‘Fit2Fit RPE Fit Test Providers Accreditation Scheme’ was launched. This is a competency scheme that has the overall aim to significantly reduce the incidence of occupational respiratory injury. The scheme highlights the need for RPE to be fitted properly, after it emerged that many workers’ RPE does not achieve the correct level of protection due to poor fit.

Where RPE is deployed the issue is not necessarily with the quality of the equipment, but with the fact that it is not being used or fitted properly. There is not just a moral obligation to correctly protect employees, there are also legal implications. UK health and safety regulations stipulate that RPE must be correctly selected and those using the equipment should receive adequate training. Where a face seal is necessary, an appropriate fit test must be conducted by a competent person – this is one area where it is critical a careful test is undertaken.

This scheme is designed to confirm the competency of any person performing face piece fit testing by passing an industry recognised exam, followed by a practical assessment. These assessments demonstrate that they have a thorough knowledge of the HSE guidance on fit testing and that they know how to fit test in practical circumstances.

The BSIF recently received results for the ‘Fit2Fit RPE Fit Test Providers Accreditation Scheme’ which highlighted that during the past year the pass rate for the scheme has been less than 50 percent. David Lummis, Chief Executive Officer at the BSIF said: “These results are a cause for concern as they highlight that individuals who carry out this job may believe they are more competent in the area than they actually are.

“The low pass rate has caused the BSIF to reflect on the general competence of RPE fitters. This incompetence may be due to a lack of knowledge, skills, experience and/or understanding of fit testing, or that these skills may have deteriorated over time. Either way, the wearer of the equipment will be risking potential respiratory health problems if the RPE is ill fitted.

“Consequently, we shall continue to strive to educate and raise the proficiency of RPE fitters as well as seek to increase the pass rates of the scheme. It is vital that everyone who carries out this job is accredited to the necessary standard, thereby reducing unnecessary risk to workers.”

Mr Lummis added: “The responsibility doesn’t just rest on the employers. Employees need to be aware of the need for perfectly fitting RPE and if they have concerns, address them immediately. With both employers and the workforce working together, a positive step towards a safer future will be achieved.”

One early company to join the scheme has a number of Fit2Fit assessed and accredited fit test technicians. Its managing director said: “All of my staff who may have cause to conduct a fit test were submitted for assessment and this has now become part of my company culture. As new recruits join and gain experience, they in turn are put forward for assessment for both the quantitative and qualitative tests.

“I think in many cases, customers take some assurance from the qualification as it shows that our fit test technicians are competent and suitably qualified to provide the service they offer to a nationally recognised standard. I’m proud of our involvement and we shall continue to support the scheme for the foreseeable future.”

Mike Clayton, senior scientist at the Health and Safety Laboratory, part of the HSE, said of the scheme: “The HSE is keen to improve the quality of RPE programmes in the workplace and the Fit2Fit scheme is certainly one way of helping combat the problem of RPE fit testing competency and is contributing to our plan.

“While we appreciate raising the competency of fit testers is a long term process, the scheme supports and improves the selection of RPE; consequently, as the scheme develops and HSE inspectors become more aware of Fit2Fit, they will start to ask further questions on competency. This scheme, which is fully supported by the HSE, provides a means for both employees and employers of demonstrating this factor.”

While the problem of respiratory disease in the workplace is still a cause for concern, the BSIF is happy to be playing a part in ultimately reducing the problem. Over the next few years the BSIF and other industry stakeholders will continue to raise awareness on the topic, with the aim of reducing respiratory problems in the workplace further.


• Just because a hazard can’t be seen doesn’t mean it is not there
• Always wear the mask when required
• Badly fitting masks do not protect the end user
• Check and put the mask on properly every time
• Do not take the mask off to talk or to inspect work
• The mask must be worn correctly to ensure the individual stays healthy

Published: 01st Jun 2012 in OSA Magazine


David Lummis

David Lummis is Chief Executive Officer at the British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF). He has more than 30 years
of experience working within the safety industry and a proven track record for successfully running and growing businesses.

Established in 1994, the BSIF is the UK’s leading trade body for the safety industry. The federation represents manufacturers and distributors of safety, health and environmental products; training companies; safety and environmental consultancies; together with accreditation and inspection houses, publishers and risk management consultancies.

It is a Health and Safety Executive recognised competent authority and the lead trade body for the PPE regulations, as designated by the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

David Lummis




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