Nearly five million employees are required to wear respirators due to occupational exposure to airborne contaminates according to OSHA estimates. Respirators do one of two things to protect those wearing them – they can filter out contaminates in the air or they can supply clean/uncontaminated air from another source. Tight fitting respirators require fit testing prior to their use in the workplace, and annually thereafter, in order to verify that the respirator has a sufficient and acceptable fit to the face of the employee. Employees wearing tight fitting respirators must be clean shaven and have no facial hair that interferes with the seal of the respirator. In order to ensure that employees can properly use a respirator, OSHA also requires annual respiratory protection training. OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Standard, 29 CFR 1910.134, details exactly what must be covered in the annual training. Another OSHA requirement prior to allowing or requiring employees to wear respirators in the workplace is a medical evaluation. This requirement is to be sure that your employees can medically wear a respirator before you put them in one. It is important to keep in mind that breathing while wearing a respirator is more difficult than without one and can put a larger physiological burden on the body. Lastly, a written respiratory protection program is required of employers with employees required to wear respirators (some elements are required for employers with employees voluntarily wearing respirators as well). The OSHA Respiratory Protection Standard also details what must be included in the written program.
While engineering and work practice controls or substitution of materials are the ideal and preferred way of dealing with airborne contaminates in the workplace, sometimes it is not feasible or possible to reduce exposures below the occupational exposure limits and respirators must be used.