How to Safely Use a Respirator An understanding of respirator safety may prevent illness, injury and even death in the most severe cases. A few key factors to take into consideration before making your selection are respirator type, proper fit, and function. 

You’ll want to ensure that any equipment you choose, from safety glasses to steel toed boots, provides protection that is tailored to your specific need. Consider your environment, specific hazard and contamination level.

What is a Respirator?

A respirator’s overall purpose is to provide safe breathable air to its user. This can be achieved using filters to purify contaminated air, or by using an entirely separate air source to supply clean air in an otherwise hazardous environment. 

Man wearing a respirator Assigned protection factor (APF) refers to the level of protection a respirator’s filtering components have been determined to provide based on varying levels and types of airborne contamination. OSHA has provided a table to break these factors down based on respirator classification. 

Higher APF percentages represent a higher level of protection. For example, if the APF is represented as 50, the respirator will be expected to reduce contamination to a concentration of 1/50. The highest APF provided by any respirator classified by OSHA is 10,000. 

Once you’ve become informed on the different classifications and functions available, your selection for the best respirator should be based on the level of protection needed to maintain your safety. Since respirator function ranges from simple filtration of particles, like dust and dirt, to fully providing a breathable atmosphere for its user, you’ll need to evaluate your choice thoroughly. 

Why Do You Need to Wear A Respirator?

Respirators are worn as a means of protection from airborne contaminants that could otherwise be inhaled and cause serious injury. It is important to understand why respirators, as well as other safety gear, are critical to accomplishing a job safely. Some occupations require employees to work in hazardous environments exposed to harmful particulates, toxic gasses, vapors, and in some cases, oils that may cause irritation to the respiratory system. 

OSHA has created standards that require employers to provide respirators that are able to fully maintain each employee’s safety for as long as they are exposed to airborne threats.

When Do You Need to Wear A Respirator?

A respirator is not only necessary, but it is required to be purchased by employees or provided by an employer whenever there is occupational exposure to airborne contaminants or any other material that may fume, splash and potentially cause serious injury or death. An appropriate respirator should also be chosen for any voluntary project that may pose similar risks.

What to Do Before Wearing A Respirator?

Before wearing a respirator, there are several steps that must be taken to ensure that you are both physically and psychologically able to use the equipment. If your employer requires you to wear a respirator, you must first understand your working conditions so that the right equipment is provided. 

An inspection should be completed to ensure your equipment is clean, sanitized and in good working condition. Ensure that your employer is made aware of any health conditions that may interfere with your ability to wear your respirator. It is your employer’s responsibility to make sure you are made aware of all standards that must be complied with. 

Why Do You Need A Medical Exam Before Wearing A Respirator?

Getting a medical exam to wear a respirator A medical exam should be conducted before wearing a respirator to ensure that you are not at risk of causing or worsening any health related conditions. If there are any preexisting medical conditions that may be worsened by wearing a respirator, your employer and health provider should be informed. 

OSHA provides a Respirator Medical Evaluation Questionnaire to assess any medically related risks to potential respirator users. 

What Conditions Might Stop You from Wearing a Respirator?

Lung and heart health are especially important when considering respirator use. Your lungs and heart are both responsible for supplying your brain with oxygen. Conditions like lung disease and asthma can prevent you from using a respirator properly.

What is A Spirometry Test?

A spirometry test is conducted by a physician to measure lung function and diagnose common medical conditions such as chronic bronchitis, asthma and COPD. A spirometer is used to conduct the test. This machine requires the patient to forcefully blow into an attached tube as it measures both the exhalation force and length of time it can be sustained. 

How to Wear A Respirator

When applying a disposable respirator, the facepiece should be pressed firmly around your nose and mouth with one hand. Using your free hand, stretch the upper band around the head just above the ears and the lower band and just below the ears. Manipulate the metal wiring above the nose to ensure a proper seal.

Apply your elastomeric respirator by firmly pressing the facepiece to your nose and mouth using one hand. This mask has a strap that should be secured to the top of the head using your free hand. Once in place, secure the bottom strap to the base of the head and adjust all straps as needed. Both respirators should be seal checked each time they are applied.

Half-Facepiece Respirator

Often referred to as a gas mask, the respirator that most commonly comes to mind is the bulkier half-face elastomeric respirator. This model includes a tight-fitting half facepiece with 2 mounted cartridges and a particulate filter at its center. This model is equipped for particle filtration as well as air purification. Your cartridge and filter selection should be determined by hazard level.

Disposable Respirator

Filtering facepiece respirators such as the disposable N, R and P classified masks include a range of protection levels against particles and oils, but are not effective against hazardous airborne gasses and other non-particulate related threats. 

Disposable respirator laying on table with gloves Three common disposable filtering facepiece respirators are the N95, the P100 and the R95. To further breakdown the differences between these, you’ll need to understand how they are classified.

For example, the P in P100 indicates that the filter used in this respirator is oil proof or provides the highest level of protection in compliance with NIOSH regulation. The N indicates a nonresistant oil filter and the R indicates that the filter is only partially effective against oils. These factors are only relevant in an environment where protection from oils is needed. 

The numbers represent the percentages to which these filters are effective. An example is the 95 in N95. This number indicates that the filtering material effectively decreases airborne particulate contamination by at least 95 percent.

Full-Facepiece Respirator

The full-facepiece elastomeric respirator includes an upper-mask portion that provides extra protection in cases of exposure to toxic chemicals and fumes. These are commonly used when handling hazardous liquid that may splash and cause irritation or injury to the eyes. 

As with the half-face piece mask, the filter and cartridge choice should be determined by the hazard type and severity. 

Hooded, full-face piece respirators are most often loose-fitting and include a full or half facepiece providing protection against debris and contaminants. The hooded portion may be accompanied by a hazmat suit or similar garment for added security. This type of loose-fitting respirator is most commonly used with filters and cartridges attached to the mask.

Airline respirators are operated using a compressor or cylinder and can be used with both tight and loose-fitting facepieces. Uncontaminated air is supplied to the user by a hose attached to the respirator’s mask or hood. 

This respirator provides a higher level of protection than those not accompanied by an external air-supply source. This type of respirator, as opposed to those using a cartridge and filter system, provides adequate protection in an oxygen-deficient environment.

Level of Filtration in Different Respirators

Some elastomeric respirators operate with a high efficiency particulate filter (HEPA filter), compressor or cylinder. HEPA filters include a motorized blower that forces air through the filter cartridges up into the mask to provide purified air to the wearer. These can be used with both full- and half-facepiece respirators. 

A self-contained breathing apparatus uses a cylinder and tight-fitting full facepiece to fully provide a breathable atmosphere for the wearer. This respirator has the highest APR available according to OSHA’s table, with the lowest listed being 5 and the highest being 10,000. 

Though each respirator serves a common purpose, their design and functions vary depending on intended use. It is vital that your respirator be properly fitted to prevent gapping in the seal that may expose you to dangerous chemicals or particles. 

If your respirator is an occupational requirement, it will be your employer’s responsibility to provide the correct equipment for your work environment. If you require a respirator for personal hobbies or projects, keep these factors in mind to make an informed selection and ensure your safety.

What to Know About Fitting a Respirator

Woman putting on a respirator Your respirator’s fit is of the utmost importance. Because everyone has a unique face shape and size, some respirators need to be adjusted to fit snugly against the face to provide maximum protection. Other respirators operate in a manner that doesn’t require a tight fit to function optimally. 

If your employer will be making the selection for you, they will be required to perform a fit test to guarantee your equipment meets the standard set by OSHA.

Qualitative Fit Testing vs Quantitative Fit Testing

Qualitative fit testing relies on the wearers ability to detect leaks in a respirator’s seal. The success or failure of this test is determined when the wearer is exposed to a test substance, which will either be detected or go undetected. This test is usually conducted with disposable respirators. A passed test indicates that none of the test substance was detected. 

Quantitative fit testing uses technology to detect leaks. A machine is attached to the respirator and this gives precise readings to the tester. A pass is indicated when the machine determines that the respirators seal is secure and not at risk for leaks. 

When Should You Re-Fit Your Respirator?

Get your respirator re-fitted if you have had any of the following:

  • Large weight gain or loss;
  • Major dental work (such as new dentures);
  • Facial surgery that may have changed the shape of your face; or
  • Significant scarring in the area of the seal.

Significant changes to face shape and structure can cause a respirator to not fit properly. When this happens, the seal may not complete, and the wearer is put at risk to exposure from chemicals, particulates, and other airborne dangers the respirator would regularly protect from. Be sure to have your respirator re-fitted when any major changes to your facial structure occur to ensure you are safe on the job.

How to Perform Seal Checks On Your Respirator

A user seal check is an important self-preformed test of your respirator’s fit and operation. This vital step should be taken before each use to determine if any adjustments need to be made. This self-check differs from the fit test performed by your employer. 

A fit test needs to be repeated at minimum on a yearly basis to ensure that your respirator is still fitting properly and in compliance with OSHA standards.

Inside seal of a respirator Tight-fitting respirators need to form an unobstructed seal around the wearers mouth and nose to function safely and effectively. Keep in mind that facial hair, long hair on the head and jewelry may cause leaks in your respirator’s seal. Facial hair should be trimmed, and all obstructing jewelry should be removed before fit testing and during use. 

Hair should also be pulled back to keep the mask area clear. 

Negative Pressure Seal

A negative pressure seal check is performed by inhaling deeply while completely covering inlets to ensure the mask is firmly in place and without leaks. The seal check is successful when the mask collapses inward without returning to its original shape for a period of 5 seconds during which the user holds his breath. 

Positive Pressure Seal

A positive pressure seal check is performed when the user manually blocks all exhalation valves while blowing enough air into the mask to maintain a slight pressure. This test is successful if the user can perform this action without leaks for a minimum of 5 seconds.

Disposable Respirator Seal Check

A successful seal check using a disposable respirator is performed by manually blocking the exhalation valve (if present) and both inhaling and exhaling to ensure that no air is escaping upon exhale, as well as ensuring that the mask collapses slightly upon inhaling.

What if You Have A Beard?

Ideally, the face should be clean-shaven when wearing a respirator because the beard can interfere with the respirator’s ability to form an air-tight seal. Facial hair that is trimmed properly does not interfere with the respirators seal. 

What If You Can’t Wear A Respirator?

Inform your employer if have any concerns about your ability to wear a respirator. Your safety depends on clear and concise communication between you, your employer and your healthcare provider. There are several factors to consider when determining whether a respirator can be used safely.

Medical Reasons

Woman discussing her respirator-prohibiting medical condition with her doctor Respirator safety depends largely on your ability to use your equipment safely. If you are not able to use your respirator because of a medical restriction, then you must discuss this with your employer. OSHA standards provide specific guidelines for how your risk factors should be determined.

If you are unable to wear a respirator, your employer cannot make you work in an area where respirators are required.

Religious Reasons

Freedom of religion can directly impact an employee’s willingness or overall ability to wear a required respirator. Currently, there are no religious exemptions from the respiratory safety standard. Greater focus has been placed on ensuring the safety of all employees who require respiratory protection in the workplace.

However, OSHA has addressed this issue by providing users with an alternative that would not violate religious practices. For example, some religions prohibit followers from cutting facial hair or hair on the head. OSHA has determined that users can still follow standards if they provide their own respirator of equal protection to those provided by the employer.

Cleaning and Maintenance

Because your respirator will most likely be contaminated by hazardous gasses, oils and particles, regular cleaning and maintenance is necessary to ensure that your equipment continues to function correctly. Being worn around the face, nose and mouth makes it vital that your equipment is properly sanitized and regularly inspected for your safety. 

This includes disinfecting the facepiece, changing filters and cartridges as recommended and making any necessary adjustments to establish the correct fit. An air-purifying face mask, such as the N95 half-face piece respirator, do not require cleaning, as they are disposable and not recommended for reuse.

Elastomeric respirators, such as full- and half-face piece rubber or silicone gas masks, can be cleaned and sanitized easily. Begin by disassembling all removable components including hoses, filters and cartridges. 

Manufacturer’s Cleaning Solutions

To fully remove debris and contaminants, use the manufacturer’s recommended cleaning solution or household detergent and warm water to hand-wash your equipment. If you’re not able to purchase the recommended disinfecting solution, there are alternatives that work just as well that use household cleaners. Some solutions can be found at your local store or supermarket. 

Homemade Cleaning Solutions

If you are using a homemade solution to decontaminate your respirator, it is important to follow guidelines and measure all ingredients correctly. The United States Department of Labor has specific respirator cleaning procedures to help you decontaminate your equipment safely and thoroughly. 

The Importance of Cleaning Your Respirator

Cleaning spray bottle for a respirator These procedures are mandatorily enforced when cleaning and reusing respirators in the workplace. To protect yourself when using respirators as a voluntary precaution or for hobby, you should apply these instructions to your own cleaning regimen. 

One recommended mixture is a Hypochlorite solution consisting of 1 milliliter of common laundry bleach mixed with 1 liter of warm water while not exceeding 110 degrees. Soak the facepiece for no longer than two minutes. Rinse the facepiece thoroughly to remove all traces of the disinfecting solution. After decontaminating the facepiece, it is recommended that it be cloth-dried or allowed to air-dry completely. If cartridges have reached the end of their recommended time for safe use, then they must be replaced. Inspect your respirator thoroughly after decontaminating to be sure that it has not been damaged or corroded during the cleaning process. 

Conclusion

When using a respirator for occupational or recreational purposes, being informed about proper respirator use is the best way to ensure you’ve chosen the right equipment. Standards have been set by several government organizations to enforce respirator safety in the workplace. These procedures should still be applied in voluntary use situations to protect users from possible injury. Keep these tips and resources in mind before your next project.