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What are Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPRs)?

Loose-fitting PAPR. Credit: JSP

At Fit Test Victoria, we are asked often about powered air purifying respirators (PAPRs).

What are they exactly? How do they differ from non-powered respirators? Can you wear them with beards? (this is probably the most asked question :-)

In this article, we'll answer these questions and more:

Let's get into it.

What are PAPRs?

Powered air purifying respirators (shortened to PAPRs) are respiratory protective devices that deliver filtered air to the wearer. PAPRs use a motorized fan to draw ambient air through filters and then blow the filtered air into the breathing zone.

Non-powered, negative pressure respirators, on the other hand, rely on the user's breathing effort to pull air through the filter.

PAPRs are used in various industries, including construction, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, and hazardous material handling.

Side note: Don't confuse PAPRs with air supplied respirators. A PAPR is not a positive-pressure device. Unlike some air supplied respirators, PAPRs can't be used in an oxygen-deficient atmosphere (less than 19.5%), where the threat is immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) or in an atomosphere in which contaminants are unknown.

The key components of a PAPR typically include:

1. Helmet or Hood: The headpiece encloses the head and often provides eye and face protection. It ensures a secure and sealed environment for the wearer. Many different types of helmets and hoods can be used with PAPRs.

2. Filters or Cartridges: PAPRs are equipped with particulate filters and/or gas & vapour cartridges that capture airborne contaminants. Which type of filters or cartridges you need depends on the hazard.

3. Battery-Powered Fan Unit: A battery-powered fan that draws in air through the filters and delivers it to the wearer's breathing zone. The unit can be situated around the waist, or within the headpiece, depending on the brand/model. Some people find the air blowing in is cooler and more comfortable than non-powered respirators.

4. Tubing: The blower unit is connected to the headpiece via tubing which directs the filtered air to the user. If the motor unit/battery is located on or in the headpiece, tubing is not required.

5. Battery Pack: PAPRs are powered by rechargeable battery packs. The duration of battery life varies depending on the specific model and usage conditions but ~8 hours is typical for many PAPRs.

PAPRs are commonly used in various industries, including healthcare, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, and hazardous material handling. They can offer a higher level of respiratory protection compared to some respirators (such as half face reusable respirators) making them suitable for environments where a higher assigned protection factor is required.

For many PAPRs, you can mix and match the powered motor units with various headpieces and hoods depending on the job you're doing or the industry you're in.

For example, healthcare workers may opt for hoods that are single-use (like the white 3M one in the photo below). Disposable headpieces may be desirable where contaminants are biohazards such as viruses and bacteria.

Construction workers may choose PAPRs with a hardhat style headpiece (aka helmet) to protect their melons from falling objects while at work.

Loose-fitting PAPR. Credit: 3M. She looks like she's really enjoying her PAPR.

Below are examples of two PAPRs from Maxisafe. The top left one shows the motor unit that wraps around the waist attached to a hard helmet and face shield. The helmet serves as a hard hat and the face shield as eye protection. The bottom right one is the same motor unit attached to a soft hood.

And here is one from 3M that has the battery pack/motor unit around the waist. The tubing delivers filtered air from the motor unit into the headpiece.

Loose fitting PAPR. Credit: 3M

Some PAPRs have the motor unit and battery pack built into the headpiece. The photos below are an example of one such unit from JSP. These are considered loose-fitting as no component relies on a seal between the face and a facepiece.

Battery life for most PAPRs is typically around 8 hours but this varies depending on the brand, exertion, facial hair, etc.

Loose-Fitting vs Tight-Fitting PAPRs. What's the difference?

Powered air purifying respirators fall into two broad categories: loose-fitting and tight-fitting.

Loose-fitting PAPRs are the ones you see in all the photos above. Loose-fitting means the hood, helmet or facepiece doesn't rely on a seal against the user's face.

Loose-fitting PAPRs can be worn with facial hair. A huge plus for many folks - especially those who can't or won't shave.

But there is a disclaimer here. Beards should be shortly trimmed when wearing a loose-fitting PAPR. Bushy, Santa Claus-style locks won't cut it. And it's really important to note that any facial hair can potentially decrease the effectiveness of loose-fitting PAPRs.

Tight-fitting PAPRs, on the other hand, have facepieces that rely on a seal - just like non-powered respirators. They can't be worn with facial hair - and they must be fit-tested in non-powered, negative pressure mode (that is without the motor/fan running).

Below is an example of a tight-fitting PAPR. This one is a Sundstrom brand using the full face SR200 respirator attached to the motor unit/fan. This particular mask can be disconnected from the motor unit and worn alone as a standard negative pressure, non-powered respirator.

How to Choose a PAPR

As with all respiratory protective equipment, many factors come into play when choosing the right devices, filters and cartridges. PAPRs are part of a well-devised and properly implemented respiratory protection program.

It's important to select your RPE (any respirators, not just PAPRs) based on the airborne hazards (what are you protecting from?), suitability, the task being performed, wear time, user needs/preferences, cost, maintenance requirements, etc.

PAPRs, for example, may not be the best choice if you work with explosive or flammable gases, vapours or dusts. They can act as an ignitor and blow you to bits.

Filter and cartridge selection, as with any respirator, depends on the airborne hazard you're exposed to. Some PAPRs can take both particulate and gas/vapour filters, while others may only take one or the other.

The AS/NZS 1715: 2009 provides in-depth guidance on how to select use and maintain respiratory protective equipment. You can also read more about RPE in this article.

Always seek advice from an occupational hygienist, or other occupational health and safety expert, when choosing RPE.

Pros and Cons

All RPE has pros and cons. Some subjective and some objective.

For many, the cost of PAPRs is a con. They typically range from around $1000 and up. But we think that PAPRs are well worth the investment. And if you take care of them, they can last a long time.

In our experience - and what we hear from our clients - being able to wear loose-fitting PAPRs with (some) facial hair is a big pro. Especially where workers can't or won't shave their beards.

Some folks find PAPRs to be more comfortable because breathing resistance is decreased compared to non-powered respirators.

Do PAPRs Have to Be Fit Tested?

It depends.

If you're using a loose-fitting PAPR, then a fit test is not required. This is because there is no seal to check.

If you're wearing a tight-fitting PAPR, then fit testing is required. The fit test would be conducted with the respirator facepiece in negative pressure, non-powered mode. Generally speaking, tight-fitting PAPRs should not be worn with facial hair.

Wrapping Up

Well, there you have it. We're done with our quick review of PAPRs.

To recap:

  • PAPRs use a motor/fan to blow filtered air into the user's breathing space.

  • There are loose-fitting and tight-fitting PAPRs. Loose-fitting units can be worn by people with facial hair (short, trimmed beards) and don't have to be fit tested.

  • Selection depends on many factors. Reference the AS/NZS 1715: 2009 to help you decide. Consult with an occupational hygienist or other health and safety professional to help with the selection of any RPE.

  • PAPRs have pros and cons. Many people think a big pro is being able to wear loose-fitting PAPRs with facial hair. And the biggest con is usually the cost.

If you're interested in PAPRs, Fit Test Victoria sells a few different brands/models (and we can do free demos). Give us a call on 0488 688 454 to find out more or schedule a demo.

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