17 March 2021
Respiratory Protection Equipment: Everything You Need to Know to Keep Your Workers Safe
For workers operating in hazardous environments, proper Respiratory Protection Equipment (RPE) can be a matter of life and death.
And unfortunately, there’s no “one size fits all” solution.
Wearing the wrong kinds of RPE can be just as dangerous as wearing none at all, making it essential that you understand exactly which equipment your workers need to stay safe.
That’s why in this guide we’re going to go over all you need to know to make informed decisions about purchasing respiratory protection equipment for your business.
What is Respiratory Protection Equipment (RPE)?
Respiratory protection equipment is a type of PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) designed to protect workers by protecting them from inhaling dangerous substances in the workplace that could potentially damage their respiratory tract.
Generally speaking, RPE (as with most PPE) is the last resort for when workers can’t be afforded adequate protection from other means of preventative measures because it is not a 100% reliable method for protecting the health of your workers.
The United States CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) and many other organisations suggest using this diagram as a guideline for when to use PPE:
Image credit: https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/hierarchy/default.html.
RPE always has the potential to shift during wear, or degrade over time with use.
Still, in many situations, it is the only available recourse for protecting your workers, or a valuable addition as a redundant safety measure in case other means of protecting your employees fail.
Prevention is always better than cure, especially when you’re considering something as essential as the health of your employees.
How Does Respiratory Protection Equipment Work?
The exact mechanism of each piece of RPE will vary, as we’ll cover below, but generally speaking, they all work as follows:
- The worker puts on their RPE before entering a hazardous environment.
- The worker’s air supply is filtered through the RPE before reaching their lungs, blocking or otherwise preventing hazardous substances or materials from entering their respiratory tract.
- The RPE is either discarded and replaced or maintained over time to ensure it stays working optimally.
Adequate and Suitable RPE
When selecting RPE, the equipment must be both adequate and suitable to the environment your workers need protection from.
What do we mean by that?
Well, firstly they need to provide adequate protection to your worker, such that their respiratory tract is completely protected from environmental hazards.
For instance, an RPE mask rated for protection from solid particles is not necessarily suited to protection from airborne contaminants.
Secondly, it needs to be suitable for working in a said environment without causing them any extra likelihood of harm or injury.
For instance, a heavy RPE suite that restricts movement may not be suitable for an environment with lots of dangerous, moving, machinery that the workers need to avoid.
What are the Different Types of Respiratory Protection Equipment?
Ireland’s Health and Safety Authority gives us this helpful diagram, breaking down the different types of respiratory protection equipment:
Respirators vs Breathing Apparatus
As we can see, there are two broad categories of RPE: respirators and breathing apparatus.
Respirators purify the air that workers breathe before it can enter their respiratory tract, ensuring any harmful substances are eliminated or blocked from entering.
The breathing apparatus, by contrast, bypass the problem entirely by providing the worker with a clean supply of breathable air that’s isolated from their surroundings.
For example, a gas mask is a respirator and a set of scuba gear is a breathing apparatus.
We’re mostly going to be dealing with respirators because that’s what we know. Breathing apparatus systems are much more complex, and you’ll want to seek specialised guidance when you need it.
Unpowered vs Powered Respirators
The difference between a powered and unpowered respirator is quite intuitively clear.
Unpowered respirators rely on, and protect, the natural movement of air in the worker’s respiratory tract as they breathe in and out to block hazardous substances from entering.
Powered respirators work by using a powered device, like an electric motor, to push air through a filter that removes hazardous substances before it comes into contact with the worker’s respiratory tract.
Which is better?
Well, it depends entirely on the application in question.
As we said earlier, having the wrong RPE is tantamount to having none at all.
You need to make sure your RPE is rated to the usage and environmental hazards that your workers will come into contact with.
We’ll cover this in more detail below, and the next section.
What are the Different Types of Unpowered Respirators?
As we see in the diagram, there are three main types of unpowered respirators: disposable filtering half-masks, half masks and full-face masks.
By now we’re all intimately acquainted with the idea of face masks, so what makes an industrial mask a piece of proper RPE?
Skip to the next section if you want more detail, but put simply each mask is rated to protect against a specific range of hazards from solid particles to gasses.
Disposable Half Masks
Disposable half masks are the kind we’re most used to seeing and are used to stop mainly solid particulate hazards, like breathing in sawdust from a wood chipper.
They’re designed to be disposable since the mask itself traps the hazards, so you’ll need to issue fresh ones to workers regularly.
Half Masks and Full Masks
Half-masks and full-masks are designed to be reusable, with replaceable filters that contain and trap airborne hazards.
They are designed for either particle filters or gas/vapour filters which protect from their respective threats. Combined filters that protect from gasses and particles are also available.
Half-masks, as the name implies, cover half the face and form a seal around the mouth and nose to protect the worker’s respiratory tract only.
Full face masks also protect the eyes, by forming a seal around the worker’s entire face.
What are the Different Types of Powered Respirators?
Powered respirators also mainly come in masks, with the difference being that the filtration process is done through an electric filter that pushes air in and out of a filtration system instead of relying on the worker’s own breathing to move the air.
They are generally safer than an unpowered respirator, but more cumbersome because the worker must usually wear the motor and filtration unit on their person.
Full Hoods, Helmets and Visors.
They also come in full hoods, helmets and visors.
Full hoods form a loose seal around the head, usually by combining a solid face shield with a soft (but airtight) hood.
Helmets seal at the neck typically, protecting the worker’s entire face.
Lastly, visors can be used with, or instead of, a mask to protect the worker’s eyes from hazards.
Tight Fitting vs Loose Fitting RPE
It’s also worth considering the type of fit you need in your RPE.
Tight-fitting facepieces are what you think of when thinking of masks. They need to form a tight seal around the worker’s face to prevent any hazardous substances from leaking past the filter.
Loose-fitting face pieces, on the other hand, work by surrounding the worker’s face in a clean, breathable environment and so don’t need to be sealed against their face but rather around it.
Think of an enclosed hazmat suit with a hood and protective face shield.
Tight-fitting facepieces can have either unpowered or powered respirators, but loose-fitting facepieces need powered respirators to function properly.
Respiratory Protection Equipment Standards Explained
The Importance of Adequate RPE
Perhaps the most important consideration when choosing RPE is whether it offers adequate protection for your workers.
Each piece will be rated to withstand specific kinds of hazards, and will generally not offer protection for anything it’s not rated for.
Medical face masks, for example, are designed to stop sprays and droplets of saliva from leaving your mouth, protecting other people from being infected by any dangerous diseases or viruses therein.
A medical face mask will not, however, offer you any protection from airborne gasses that could damage your lungs.
That’s why you must know exactly which hazards your workers need protection from and get them the right equipment for the job.
But first, let’s learn how to interpret the different ratings of respiratory protection equipment.
Understanding Basic RPE Ratings
Let’s use this disposable half-mask from the G.Fox store as an example:
Aside from just reading the description, there is more we can learn about the product from its name.
Many South African businesses (including G.Fox) use the standardised European system for designating RPE.
In this case, note the designation after its name and product code that reads “FFP2”.
“FF” is an acronym for “Filtering Facepiece”, which tells us what kind of RPE this is.
This is followed by “P2”, which tells us the standard of the filtration the mask provides.
Particle filters are divided into three classes:
- P1, low-efficiency filters (filters at least 80% of airborne particles)
- P2, medium efficiency filters (filters at least 94% of airborne particles)
- P3, high-efficiency filters (filters at least 99% of airborne particles)
Gas/Vapour filters are also divided into three classes, these will all be found on nondisposable full and half-masks:
- A1/B1, low capacity filter
- A2/B2, medium-capacity filters
- A3/B3, high capacity filters
We can therefore see this is an “FFP2” mask, a medium efficiency disposable facemask that offers good protection against harmful fine particles like dust from wood shavings, metal or fibreglass.
For context, an FFP1 mask is only rated for larger particles and inert dust such as from stone and plaster and an FFP3 mask is rated for extremely fine toxic materials asbestos and ceramic (but not gasses).
On non-disposable half masks and full masks, these ratings will be found on the filtration cartridges.
For example, this cartridge is specifically rated for P2 dust and metal.
Aside from these basic denominations of filters, there are also the following filter codes and colour codes that can tell us what a piece of RPE is rated for:
Alt: A table showing the different filter denominations by letter and the substances they are rated to protect, along with a colour coding system for each:
Developing a Strategy for Managing Employee Safety Using Respiratory Protection Equipment
Having a plan in place to manage your organisation’s use of RPE is essential in ensuring they’re able to do your job and protect your workers from harm.
Especially in larger organisations, it can be easy for things to “fall through the cracks”, but this can’t be allowed to happen when the consequences are as high as the health and safety of your employees.
To that end, the HSA of Ireland puts forwards the following suggestions for seven key elements in creating your RPE management plan:
“1. A written plan detailing how the programme is managed
- A complete assessment and knowledge of respiratory hazards that will be encountered in the workplace
- Procedures and equipment to control respiratory hazards, including the use of engineering controls and work practices designed to limit or reduce employee exposures to such hazards
- Guidelines for the proper selection of appropriate respiratory protective equipment
- An employee training program covering hazard recognition, the dangers associated with respiratory hazards, and proper care and use of respiratory protective equipment
- Inspection, maintenance, and repair of respiratory protective equipment
- Medical surveillance of employees, where necessary”
The key things to take away is that you need a solid strategy in place, not just to manage which respiratory protection equipment you purchase to adequately protect your employees, but also how you’ll manage and maintain the RPE so it stays working in optimal condition.
There are many businesses out there that can help you accomplish this if you don’t have the needed skills in-house.
We hope this helped you understand the world of respiratory protection equipment better, and how it can be best used to protect your workers.
We’re always happy to consult with you to help fulfil your business’ safety, work-wear and cleaning product needs, and again you can find our full range of respiratory protection equipment here.
Thanks for reading
The G.Fox Team