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5 Common Mistakes with Respiratory Protective Equipment (and How to Avoid Them)

There is a lot to know about the selection, use, and maintenance of your respiratory protective equipment (RPE).

Your first stop should be the AS/NZS 1715:2009. This is the quintessential standard to guide PCBUs and employers in Australia in developing and implementing comprehensive respiratory protection programs.

At Fit Test Victoria, we tie education and training into everything we do. Sometimes, this means pointing out the unintentional misuse of respiratory protective equipment. From having the wrong filters to selecting size large masks for every employee, we've seen it all.

In this article, we'll reveal the 5 common mistakes when it comes to RPE and what you can do to avoid these mishaps.

This article focuses on reusable (elastomeric) respirators.

Let's get started.

Mistake 1: Buying all reusable respirators in size large

Respirators are not 'one-size-fits-all.' Yet we've noticed that a lot of employers purchase reusable respirators in size large for every employee.

This is setting yourself up for failure. From our experience conducting thousands of quantitative fit tests, we discovered that most people fit best in a medium (most males) or a small (most females) facepiece.

If a respirator is too large or too small, the seal can be compromised causing microscopic airborne contaminants to leak inside. And equally important, ill-fitting masks are uncomfortable for the wearer.

When selecting RPE, having several brands/models in various sizes is ideal. If you're keen on staying with one brand/model, at least get that respirator in various sizes.

At Fit Test Victoria, we make finding a well-fitting mask for you and your staff easy. We offer a range of respirators in various sizes to use for your fit test. Once we identify the brand/model/size that passes the fit test, you can buy the respirator kits from us or your regular supplier.

Mistake 2: Using the wrong filters and cartridges

All too often, we see people with the wrong filters and/or cartridges attached to their respirators.

For example, we've seen employees wearing gas/vapour cartridges with no particulate filtration in an environment where respirable crystalline silica was the hazard.

And we've witnessed people using particulate-only filters in a workplace where dangerous gases and vapours were the hazard.

To avoid the potentially deadly mistake of using the wrong filters/cartridges, a comprehensive risk assessment must be conducted by PCBUs to determine which type of respirator is required and what kind of filters and cartridges are needed.

The proper (and safest) way to choose respiratory protective equipment is to use assigned protection factors (APFs). This requires PCBUs to know the airborne contaminant levels (via air monitoring) in the workplace as well as the workplace exposure standards.

If you're not using APFs to select RPE, it's a bit of a lucky dip.

If you're unsure as to whether or not you're using the right filters/cartridges, consult with a health and safety expert or an occupational hygienist. Be sure the professionals you engage with have a solid understanding of the selection, use and maintenance of RPE.

You can read more about filters/cartridges here.

Mistake 3: Not changing filters/cartridges (ever or often enough)

Particulate filters and gas/vapour don't last forever.

We often encounter individuals who are unsure of when they last replaced their filter or cartridge and are unaware of the criteria for doing so.

Particulate Filters

Particulate filters can filter out dust, mists, fumes, smoke, mould, bacteria, and viruses.

As some types of particulate filters load up with particles, they usually become more efficient. But they also become harder to breathe through.

Particulate filters should be changed when:

  • It becomes difficult to breathe comfortably (this varies from person to person).

  • They are damaged or dirty.

Gas/Vapour Cartridges

Gas/vapour cartridges use sorbent materials, such as activated carbon, to filter gas or vapour molecules. When the cartridges become fully saturated and get through to the wearer, this is called "breakthrough."

The service life of these cartridges depends on several factors including the amount of contaminant in the air, breathing rate, temperature, humidity, and use conditions.

Gas/vapour cartridges should be changed:

  • According to an established change schedule (sooner if the contaminant can be detected by smell or taste inside the respirator, this is "breakthrough.")

  • Six months after opening the package, even if not used. Write the open date on the cartridges.

Never rely solely on breakthrough as an indicator for changing cartridges. For some substances, by the time you can smell or taste them, they may already be exerting toxic effects on your body.

Employees should know where to get replacement filters/cartridges and how often they should be changing them (and the indicators for change).

If you conduct air monitoring, you can use 3M's free software to estimate the life of your gas/vapour cartridges:

And always follow the manufacturer's instructions for changing cartridges.

You can read more about filter/cartridge changes here.

Mistake 4: Believing all full-face respirators can be worn with facial hair

There is a common misconception that any full-face respirator can be worn with whiskers. We hear this all the time.

But it's not true.

Any respirator that relies on an adequate seal between the facepiece and the face requires the wearer to be clean-shaven.

Some types of loose-fitting powered air purifying respirators (PAPRs) can be worn with facial hair. The key word here is loose-fitting meaning the hood or helmet does not touch the face.

A few examples of loose-fitting PAPRs are below:

Loose-fitting PAPRs that can be worn with short, trimmed beards

If you're using a PAPR with a tight-fitting facepiece - whether it's full or half-face - the wearer must be clean-shaven and the respirator must be fit-tested.

Mistake 5: Wearing damaged/dirty RPE

Wearing RPE that is damaged or overly dirty can be just as bad as not wearing protection at all.

We've come across quite a few doozies in our travels. Respirators with the filters duct taped on. Headband straps tied in a knot because the elastic is worn out. Masks covered in a concrete-esque coating because they've never been cleaned. Missing valve covers. Ripped gaskets. Filters that have never been changed. Masks thrown in the back of utes. You name it, we've probably seen it.

To avoid using RPE that isn't fit for purpose, a quick inspection before every use, and during cleaning, is a must.

Check to ensure:

  • connections are tight

  • there are no rips, holes or tears in the facepiece

  • the facepiece isn't distorted

  • face shield isn't cracked or damaged (for full face masks)

  • the straps' elasticity is in good shape

  • inhalation and exhalation valves clean, intact, functional

  • the valve and valve seat clean

  • the filters are properly secured

To clean RPE, follow the manufacturer's instructions. Generally, you can wash the mask in warm water with neutral detergent and leave to air dry. Remove filters/cartridges before cleaning.

Place your clean mask and filters in a storage bag or container and then store in a cool, dry place.

Wrapping Up

To ensure your RPE is providing its stated level of protection, it's important to avoid the 5 mistakes we've outlined in this article.

  1. Don't wear RPE that is ill-fitting. This can compromise the seal and be more uncomfortable for the wearer.

  2. Ensure you have the right filters/cartridges for the specific airborne contaminants in your workplace.

  3. Know the criteria for changing particulate and gas/vapour filters. And change them when it's time!

  4. Don't wear any tight-fitting respirators, including full face masks, with facial hair. Go for a loose-fitting PAPR instead.

  5. Don't wear RPE that is damaged or overly dirty. Inspect your equipment before each use and during cleaning.

That's all for now. Happy breathing!

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