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Respiratory Protection Programs - What they are and why you need one

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Did you know written respiratory protection programs (RPP) are a requirement under the AS/NZS 1715:2009?

Most PCBUs are aware of their obligation to get respirators fit tested. But fit testing is just one component of a comprehensive RPP. A well-written and properly executed RPP can help protect workers from respiratory hazards and help organizations establish effective practices, allowing for healthier and safer workplaces.

Why do you need a written RPP?

First and foremost, to keep workers safe from airborne hazards that can cause diseases or death.

Other reasons to have a solid plan in place:

  • Managers and employees can consult written policies/protocols to clarify their duties around respiratory protective equipment.

  • WorkSafe and other safety inspectors may reference your RPP to verify your comprehension of respiratory protective equipment and the steps you've taken to implement the appropriate and safe use of respirators.

  • Records of training and fit-testing help determine when updates or renewals required.

Overview of AS/NZS 1715:2009

AS/NZS 1715:2009 sets out requirements and guidelines for respiratory protection. It includes discussions around respiratory hazards, the assessment of associated risks, and various methods of control including the safe and appropriate use of respiratory protective equipment (RPE).

This Standard should be on the bookshelves of every organisation, across all industries, where workers are required to wear respiratory protective equipment. If you don't have a copy, get one here:

Other similar international standards around respiratory protection - that we often borrow from here in Australia - are ISO 16975-3 and OSHA 29 CFR 1910.134.

Respiratory Protection Program Components

The establishment of a respiratory protection program is essential to safeguard workers against airborne hazards in the workplace.

Any PCBU, manager, and those responsible for health and safety should have a solid understanding of airborne hazards and respiratory protective equipment.

The fundamental components of an RPP include:

1. Program Administrator

A program administrator oversees and ensures the effective implementation of an organization's respiratory protection program.

The administrator is ultimately responsible for every component of an RPP. All of which we'll review in this article.

In essence, the program administrator ensures that the organisation's RPP is not only compliant with local, state, and federal regulations but also effective in protecting its employees from respiratory hazards. The individual should have proper training and knowledge about respiratory hazards and protective measures to effectively manage this role.

It's a big job being the program administrator!

2. Risk Assessment

Safe Work requires employers to evaluate respiratory hazards in the workplace. You can bring in an independent consultant for an additional opinion on your hazards if you don’t have a trained safety professional on staff. The results of the assessment can help determine:

  • Exposure levels, and whether they’re acceptable or unacceptable.

  • Effective ways to control exposure.

  • Which types of respirators are right for your workers.

You should conduct a new assessment periodically and every time there are changes in the workplace that could result in new exposures — such as a change in equipment, process, products or control measures.

Credit: CDC

3. Selection and Issuing of Suitable Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE)

There are lots of choices when it comes to RPE. Disposable, half-face, full-face, supplied air, powered-air purifying.

Choosing appropriate RPE is crucial and depends on the nature of the hazard, the work requirements, the environment, and the worker’s health.

AS/NZS 1715:2009 emphasizes selecting equipment that conforms to AS/NZS 1716, considering factors like fit, comfort, and compatibility with other personal protective equipment.

Program administrators must be knowledgeable about the types of RPE and how to choose the right equipment for their staff.

You also have to consider workers with facial hair. Tight-fitting respirators can't be worn by people with facial hair. You can read more about respirators and facial hair here.

For more information on RPE click here.

For more information about filters/cartridges click here.

4. Training

You must ensure employees receive appropriate training on the safe and appropriate use of RPE. Training should include:

  • Identifying respiratory hazards

  • Why respirators are needed

  • Selecting appropriate RPE

  • Importance of fit testing

  • Capabilities and limitations of RPE

  • How to inspect RPE

  • How to don/doff RPE

  • How to perform seal checks

  • Wear time

  • Care, maintenance and storage of RPE

  • Filters and change schedules

Be sure to keep records of any training you provide to employees.

Credit: TSI

5. Fit Testing

Fit testing is a requirement under the AS/NZS 1715: 2009 for anyone who wears tight-fitting RPE.

Fit testing ensures selected RPE provides a proper seal against the user's face. Without a fit test, there's no way to know if the RPE is providing its stated level of protection.

Fit testing must be conducted when someone is first issued RPE and annually thereafter. Fit testing must also be done if the RPE changes (brand, model or size) or if there are any changes to the face such as weight gain/loss, extensive dental work, trauma, surgery, etc.

You must wear the exact brand/model/size respirator that you pass the fit test on. If you change the brand, model or size, you have to get fit tested in the new mask.

6. Care and Maintenance

Implement procedures for the inspection, cleaning, maintenance, and storage of RPE. Ensure that damaged or malfunctioning equipment is taken out of service.

Employees should be taught:

  • How to self-inspect their RPE every time they use it to ensure there's no damage or defects.

  • How to clean and store their RPE per manufacturers' instructions and organisation policies.

  • How and when to change filters.

PCBUs must ensure that replacement filters are readily available for reusable respirators. And employees know where to get them!

6. Medical Evaluations

Section 6.1 of the AS/NZS 1715 notes: "Persons who are routinely required to wear respirators should have an initial medial assessment prior to use to determine if they are able to wear respirators."

Respirators can put extra stress on the wearer’s body. Some underlying medical and psychological may preclude someone from safely wearing RPE. Chronic lung diseases, heart disease, skin conditions, seizure disorders, claustrophobia, and severe anxiety are a few examples.

While medical evaluations are not a 'must', it's wise to ensure anyone with these conditions is cleared by a qualified healthcare professional before they wear RPE. A screening questionnaire, such as this one from OSHA, is a great tool to identify at-risk staff.

7. Record Keeping

If it's not documented, it didn't happen.

It's imperative to maintain records of your respiratory protection program, including training records, fit test results, air sampling data, and medical evaluations or screenings.

Every time an aspect of the program is implemented or updated, update your records.

Be sure you store and maintain personal information according to privacy laws and your organisation's privacy policies.

8. Program Evaluation

Periodically review and evaluate the effectiveness of your RPP and make necessary adjustments. This process should involve feedback from employees, incident reports, or changes in tasks or environments.

Importance of Compliance

Adherence to AS/NZS 1715:2009 is not only about regulatory compliance but also about the well-being and safety of employees.

A properly implemented RPP minimizes the risks associated with respiratory hazards, thus reducing the incidence of occupational diseases, absenteeism, and healthcare costs. Moreover, it fosters a safety culture within the organization, enhancing employee morale and productivity.

Wrapping Up

Written respiratory protection programs, as outlined by AS/NZS 1715:2009, are integral for organizations aiming to protect their employees from respiratory hazards. The Standard provides a comprehensive guide for the identification and control of respiratory risks and emphasizes the importance of selecting suitable RPE, ensuring proper fit, usage, and maintenance, and conducting regular monitoring and evaluation.

Compliance with this Standard not only ensures a safer and healthier workplace but also promotes a culture of safety and responsibility, which is essential for organizational success.

Implementing a successful RPP can be challenging but is ultimately rewarding, reflecting a company's commitment to its most valuable asset – its employees.

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