The Importance of PPE – Part 1: Respiratory Protection

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The importance of respiratory protection

Protecting your airways is vital for your health and longevity. The construction industry is one of the most dangerous industries when it comes to the potential to harm your airways. Research has shown that construction workers:

  • Are twice as likely to have chronic obstructive lung diseases as the rest of the country.
  • Suffer deaths from lung cancer at a rate that is 50% higher than the overall U.S. population.
  • Are five times as likely to have mesothelioma, and 33 times as likely to have asbestosis, than the overall population.
  • Consistently inhale dust, silica, welding fumes, and other toxic gases at a rate far above any other profession.

All of this leads to lung function impairments, silicosis, pleural thickening, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and a shorter expected life span.

The causes of respiratory issues can be difficult to deal with. When you’re working near the ledge of a building, you use Fall Protection equipment. If there is a potential for falling or flying debris, you wear hard hats and safety glasses. So what are you doing to protect yourself from these often unseen dangers? 

Harmful Substances

During the course of work, construction workers are exposed to a variety of harmful substances that can be inhaled, including:

  • Silica
  • Chalk dust
  • Latex
  • Asbestos
  • Sawdust
  • Animal and insect dander
  • Toxic chemicals from industrial products, including paints and solvents or cleaning products
  • Lead
  • Pesticides
  • Dust and mold from the buildings themselves

All of these can lead to long-term medical issues, or even short-term irritation, if not protected against.

Understanding Silica and Other Regulations

While everything you inhale is a concern, OSHA has taken a particularly hard stance on crystalline silica in recent years. This is a common mineral found in the earth’s crust, and is commonly used in concrete, mortar, glass, bricks, and artificial stone.

While it isn’t a concern when these are in whole form, when you start working on them, you create respirable crystalline silica that can be inhaled into the lungs. Processes such as abrasive sand blasting, cutting and sawing brick and concrete, grinding and crushing block or mortar, drilling into or sanding concrete walls, or manufacturing these products are just some of the way that silica becomes respirable.

That’s why OSHA issued two standards regarding respirable crystalline silica, and has devoted a section of their website to it. It’s a valuable resource that includes videos on controlling silica dust in construction, protecting workers from silica hazards, and providing training for employees and management. While PPEs are incredibly valuable towards providing a healthy, inhalant-free environment, knowledge and training also needs to be addressed to reduce the impact on the construction work force.

SHOP: North full and half-face respirators and filters

North Respirators

Selecting the Right Respirator

As EHS Today mentions, even the ancient Romans knew the value of, and need for, respiratory protection. Thankfully, the workers of today don’t need to resort to animal bladders, wet cloths, or soaking their beards and holding them over their mouths.

Still, it’s not easy to select the right respirator for the task. By taking the following factors into account, you can help to make a respirator selection that is appropriate for your jobsites:

  • Identify the contaminant or contaminants that need to be protected against. For instance, a respirator designed to protect against particulate matter may not address gas or vapor.
  • If gas or vapor protection is needed, is there a suitable chemical cartridge available?
  • Determine the concentration of contaminant, oxygen levels, and contaminant levels that may be faced.
  • Determine the hazard ratio and compare it to the APF
  • If a particulate filter is needed, determine the efficiency of the filter and figure out which series is required.
  • Consider workplace conditions when choosing a respirator – will it be hot or cold, wet or dry?
  • How long will employees need to wear the respirator on a daily basis?
  • Does the respirator allow employees to communicate during the task, if needed?
  • Does the respirator account for other PPE needed, such as prescription eyewear, safety glasses, or face shield?

By considering these factors against the available respirators, you can help to find the perfect fits for each employee or task. Better yet, let PowerPak use our years of industry experience to help you choose the right solution.

SHOP: 3M full and half-face respirators and filters

Understanding Fit Testing

Fit testing is necessary for getting the right respirator for the individual worker. Not everyone has the same facial shape, and a respirator that doesn’t fit a person’s face simply won’t protect them as it should. If a respirator does not form a tight seal with your face or neck, contaminated air will leak into the facepiece, bypassing the filters and rendering the respiratory protection impotent.

Fit testing can fall under qualitative or quantitative testing, and must be performed at least every 12 months. Each employee must be fit tested with the respirator they will be using, down to the make, model, style, and size. If a fit test is failed, a new respirator needs to be supplied. Aside from the yearly test, an employee must be retested whenever there is a change in their physical condition that could affect the fit, including large weight gain or loss, major dental work, facial surgery, or significant scarring in the seal area.

OSHA provides a great resource that has videos pertaining to fit testing and other respirator concerns.

Shop: MSA Advantage respirators and filters

Caring for Respirators

Just like any other piece of PPE, caring for respirators is important, to ensure that they retain their effectiveness every day. Properly caring them also helps them to be useful for longer periods of time.

Regular maintenance should include daily examination for any broken parts or deteriorating plastic or rubber components. Units should be cleaned, decontaminated, and disinfected after use. Rubber parts such as face pieces and breathing tubes need special attention.

Spare parts should be kept around for repairs, and workers should be encouraged to conduct any minor repairs to the respiratory equipment, such as filter replacement. All spare parts should be approved by the manufacturer for use in the equipment, and sticking with original manufacturer parts is the best bet.

Respiratory PPE shouldn’t be stored within a yard of heating devices, and should not be stored in a place that may be directly exposed to sunlight for long amounts of time. It also shouldn’t be stored near toxic substances or substances that could negatively affect the materials that make up the PPE. Don’t store it near unpleasant smells that could be absorbed into the respirator and make it difficult for the worker to wear.

Above all else? Follow the manufacturer’s instructions! They know what is best for their equipment.

The right respiratory protection helps to ensure not just immediate safety, but long-term health for your workers. Make sure they are properly equipped for their daily jobs, and they will help make sure that your company moves ahead safely!

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