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5 Steps to Implement a Workplace Respiratory Protection Program

N95 masks

When considering respirator use, we often hear companies asking pricing questions first. Construction companies to medical offices alike all want to know the cost of getting staff fit tested – but there are necessary steps to take before discussing the fit test. Within this article we will discuss the method, phases, importance, proper selection and personal experiences as it relates to workplace respiratory protection programs.  

Step 1: Determining The Need for Respirator Use 

As a first step, it is important to determine your need.  Ask yourself the following: 

  • What are you protecting your employees from?  
  • Do you know the limits of exposure? 

While many companies shy away from performing air sampling to determine the need of respirators, it is an imperative and required step.  Many times after conducting the sampling companies are happy to find out that they are not required to wear respirators for the task at hand.  

On the other hand, it is possible that an item tested for exceeds OSHAs PEL or permissible exposure limit for that specific constituent.  If this is the case, your employees are required to have a medical clearance to wear a respirator.   

Step 2: Required Medical Clearance 

Medical clearance exams range from an in-person doctor’s visit to an online survey with a PA. In any case, the medical questionnaire must be reviewed and signed off on by a medical professional. Why is this so important and required? If the doctor sees something in an employee’s questionnaire that concerns them, they may not approve the employee to wear a respirator without further examination, x-ray, or specialist visit.  For example, someone who has an underlying heart or lung condition could have a medical reason that would prevent them from being able to wear any type of respirator. 

If you have ever worn a respirator of any kind, for any length of time, you can quickly see how they can potentially cause rapid heartbeat, increased sweating and of course restricted airflow.    

Step 3: Proper Training 

Once employees have passed the medical clearance the next required step is training. Employees need to be trained on the proper use and selection of respirators.  

Training covers items such as:  

  • What type of respirator to use; full face, half face, air supplied?  
  • What type of cartridge should you use; gas & vapor, particulate filter or combination filter?  
  • How do you function check your mask?  
  • Do you know how to clear a mask?  

In our experience, the training is the most important part of this endeavor. Even seasoned professionals may not know the difference between organic vapor and particulate filters and more importantly when to use each cartridge.  Ultimately our goal is to educate your employees to help keep them and your company safe.    

Step 4: Fit Testing 

Now that we have determined a need for respirators, employees have passed the medical clearance and attended training – the next step is to complete the fit test. There are two types of testing that are available, quantitative and qualitative.  

As defined by OSHA a qualitative fit test is “a pass/fail test method that uses your sense of taste or smell, or your reaction to an irritant in order to detect leakage into the respirator facepiece. Qualitative fit testing does not measure the actual amount of leakage. Whether the respirator passes or fails the test is based simply on you detecting leakage of the test substance into your facepiece.  

Quantitative fit testing is defined by OSHA as “Quantitative fit testing uses a machine to measure the actual amount of leakage into the facepiece and does not rely upon your 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”. This option is not as popular, mainly due to the associated cost that typically runs $15k or more. 

Minimum Annual Recertification 

What users must understand is that this fit test, regardless of type of testing completed, is a picture in time. If you cinch down your straps on your respirator or pinch the nosepiece on your N-95 before testing, you need to try and replicate that same feel every time you don the mask.  

The length of your hair, weight changes, new scars or any other changes on your face (where a mask is worn) that may have taken place since your fit test could cause issues.  

If this or any scenario causes a change in fit, or at a minimum of annually – employees need to be re-certified on their mask fit through one of the methods detailed above.  

Step 5: Written Program 

The last step, although it typically does not get complete last, is the development of a written respiratory protection program. This written program will describe in detail your companies policies and procedures as it relates to respiratory protection at your facility.  

As you can see there are many elements to a respiratory protection program, and we understand they can be complicated.  If you find yourself wondering if your team should evaluate your processes to determine if respiratory protection is required, please don’t hesitate to reach out.  

If you need immediate assistance or answers to a safety question or problem, jump on our app Safety Badger (www.safetybadger.com) and one of our industry experts will help you through your challenges.  Contact OSEA directly, or talk to your Walsh Duffield Representative for trial access.    

Joseph Coniglio – President, OSEA 
joeconiglio@osea.com