According to OSHA’s General Respiratory Protection Guidance for Employers and Workers, a respirator is a device that protects you from inhaling dangerous substances, such as chemicals and infectious particles.
Respirators are among the most important pieces of protective equipment for working in hazardous environments.
To appreciate the differences between workplace respirator use and personal respirator use, it is important to understand how these devices work.
Three key factors are required for a respirator to be effective:
(1) The respirator has to be put on correctly and worn during the exposure;
(2) The respirator must fit the user’s face snugly to minimize the number of particles that bypass the filter and get into the breathing zone through gaps between the user’s skin and the respirator seal; and
(3) The respirator filter needs to be highly effective at capturing particles that pass through the filter.
OSHA has regulations (29 CFR 1910.134) in place to ensure that all three of these items are addressed in occupational settings where respirator use is required.
All employers with employees required to wear a respirator must:
- Provide training which covers putting on a respirator and when the respirator should be used;
- Ensure that the respirator is both comfortable and fits the wearer using a fit test protocol conducted by a safety professional; and
- Use a NIOSH-approved respirator demonstrated to meet a certain level of filtration efficiency (e.g., 95% or more). In addition, workers in a complete respiratory protection program, receive a medical evaluation to ensure that they can safely wear their assigned respirator for the hazard and work task.
Numerous workplace protection factor studies have demonstrated that when used correctly, within the context of a complete respiratory protection program following OSHA 1910.134, any NIOSH-approved particulate respirator, regardless of make, model, or size, will provide a minimum level of protection.
For example, an N95 filtering facepiece respirator (FFR), when used properly, will reduce the amount of particles being inhaled at work to at least 1/10 of that in the room.
While FFRs have proven to be an essential component of occupational safety and health, their use is not without challenges. For example, most workers will find that wearing an FFR is not comfortable because a properly worn respirator will trap warm, moist air around your face.
However, the effort required to move air in and out of the device is not noticeable for most people. Studies have shown that FFR use causes no additional physiological stress to most wearers, including pregnant women and does not contribute to heat stress.