It's time to talk about respiratory protection
When it comes to your health, have you ever thought, "I wish someone would've warned me about this a long time ago?" Don't let this happen to your employees.
Most respiratory protection isn't mandated, and employees may not know enough to protect themselves. It's the responsibility of a business to educate their employees, so they can take responsibility for their health and make informed decisions that will protect their health now and in the future. If you as an employer fail to educate in the first place, employees will pay a health price long term.
That’s why the topic of non-mandated respiratory protection is so important. In particular, the voluntary use of a disposable particulate dusk mask, also referred to as filtering face piece, mechanical filter or particulate respirator.
When is Respiratory Protection Effective?
- When the right kind of respirator is used
- You know when to use it
- You know how to put it on and take it off
- It's available when you need it
- You have stored it and kept it in working order in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions
There's many variables when it comes to respiratory protection. However, the effectiveness in general boils down to these five key points. As an employer, you can provide education and training to help assure the respiratory protection for your employees.
OSHA Requirements for Voluntary Use of a Dust Mask
It's important for employers to know that OSHA places two requirements on employers when it comes to allowing employees to wear dust masks voluntarily:
- Employers must determine that the masks themselves do not pose a hazard to workers.
- Employers must provide the information found in Appendix D to 1910.134 of OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Standard to workers on a one-time basis.
Respirators are an effective method of protection against designated hazards when properly selected and worn. Conversely, they can also be a hazard to the worker if not used right.
Factors in Choosing a Respirator
In order to be able decide whether or not to wear a respirator, and then to choose the correct one for the job, employees should know how to identify the following factors:
- Length of exposure - How long will you be breathing in the dust particles? e.g. 2 or 8 hours
- Type and toxicity of contaminants - What kinds of contaminants or toxins are in the air?
- Concentration level of contaminants - How much of the contaminants or toxins are in the air?
- Size of particles - How deep in your respiratory system can the dust particles go and how long will the dust remain in the air? (see more on dust types and size below)
- Activity level and breathing rate - What will your activity level be? It's important to know that breathing through a respirator is harder than breathing in open air and to choose one that is conducive to the job.
- Age and overall health - How old are you and do you have any health conditions? Dust causes extra problems for people with lung diseases such as asthma or emphysema or elderly people, so wearing a respirator is more important.
Answering these questions will help guide you in deciding whether or not to use a respirator, and which respirator to use.
Particulate Dust Types
Many people don't know there are to different kinds of dust, respirable dust and inhalable dust. And that you may not always be able to see dust in the air. But just because you can't see dust doesn't mean it's not present.
Respirable Dust: Particles < than 10 µm (microns) and are small enough to penetrate the nose and upper respiratory system and deep into the lungs or gas exchange region. Generally, beyond the body’s natural clearance mechanisms of cilia and mucous and are more likely to be retained in the lungs. This type of dust is more dangerous to our longtime health because it accumulates in our respiratory system.
Inhalable Dust: Dust which enters the body, but is trapped in the nose, throat and upper respiratory tract.
Know NIOSH N95 Respirators
All air purifying respirators (APR) used in agriculture should be approved and certified by National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). APRs come in a variety of ratings that relate to how they perform and what environment type it is designed to be used in. N95 respirators are common, the N stands for "not oil resistant" and the 95 means it removes 95% of all particles that are at least 0.3 microns in diameter. They are designed to fit over the nose and mouth of the wearer, and properly fitted can provide excellent protection. All N95 respirators will have two straps that go around your head.
N95 / R95 / P95 masks filter out 95% of dust particles (R=Resistant to oil P=Oil Proof)
N99 / R99 / P99 masks filter out 99% of dust particles
N100 / R100 / P100 masks filter out 99.7% of dust particles
It is important to understand dust or particulate respirators only protect against particles. They are the simplest, least expensive and least protective type of respirators available. However, when used correctly, is ideal for providing respiratory protection in many agricultural environments. Particulate respirators are "air-purifying respirators" because they clean particles out of the air as you breathe. Even particles you can't see. In agricultural situations, it's important to recognize when a particulate respirators are needed and that they can only protect the worker when they wear them.
Training for Respirators Makes A Difference
There are many different kinds of dust respirators for ag operations. Training is required for anyone who wears a respirator to know how to protect their health and select the proper type of respirator for the job.
Proper fit testing is also important. Dust masks need to fit your face properly and make a tight seal. 3M has a fit guide called Helping You Wear it Right. This easy to understand guide is available in English and Spanish. OSHA provides a video on Respiratory Fit Testing, it too is available in English and Spanish.
Training is critical for wearing a dust mask. When worn incorrectly, a mask can be ineffective even for a well intended employee. It is essential that there is a good seal formed between the dust mask and the skin with nothing in between. Facial hair can prevent a mask from making a good seal and if not clean-shaven effectiveness will be compromised. It is up to the employee to recognize facial hair can compromise their health when wearing a mask.
Employers have the primary responsibility to provide respiratory information to make employees aware of risks and how to mitigate them. You don't want a situation where employees are simply unaware of the risks and not provided resources to protect themselves. In turn, employees are responsible for following the safe work practices. Additionally, when protection is not mandatory, employees should be armed with information and awareness, so they can make informed decisions that will ultimately protect their health.