Respirator Fit Testing is required annually | Your Safety Department

Respirators are an important piece of safety equipment that help protect the wearer against a variety of harmful airborne agents. OSHA requires the use of respirators to protect employees from breathing contaminated and/or oxygen deficient air when effective engineering controls are not feasible or are being instituted. But, that doesn't mean just anybody can wear a respirator and in fact there are times when using a respirator for the wrong purpose can lead to a serious injury or death.

Case Study: Many years ago when working as a cargo inspector I boarded a chemical cargo carrier to inspect a vessel tank prior to the loading a chemical which had stringent quality specifications. Confined space activities at that time were not routinely regulated aboard chemical carriers and as a result many cargo inspectors were put in harm's way due to a lack of training on confined space activities, insufficient instrumentation to test the tank atmospheres, insufficient confined space entry permitting processes, and an over-reliance on the vessel crew to support the confined space entry with hole watches and confirmation that the tanks were under breathable air.

The crew of the vessel was from another country and spoke broken English - 1st clue to be careful. I was being rushed by the terminal to conduct the inspection since there is always a need for dock space - 2nd clue to be careful. The vessel was dirty, cluttered, and slippery from prior cargo spills on the deck - 3rd clue to be careful. Something provoked me to conduct a deck level inspection before an entry was attempted. And....I failed the tank as it contained remnants of a prior cargo of kerosene. This was something that would take quite some time to correct and would probably cause the vessel to have to depart the dock. I was reporting this to the supervisor of the terminal when a commotion started on the deck of the vessel. One of the crew had been instructed to enter the tank to start cleaning the prior cargo residue in an attempt to get inspected before the vessel was forced to leave the dock. The crew member had fallen from a ladder inside the tank. It became immediately clear to the crew that the tank, which I was about to enter to inspect a moment ago, was under nitrogen.The crew member had a cartridge respirator on, but cartridge respirators still require breathable air and are the wrong tool to use when entering tanks with deficient air. The rescue was a successful but painful one for the crew member.

When NOT to wear a respirator

1) When you have not had Medical Clearance to wear a respirator. Medical clearance is required through the submission of a Medical Evaluation Questionnaire. This is conducted by a licensed health care professional (PLHCP) to ensure that the wearer has no medical conditions which would preclude the use of a respirator.

2) When you have not been properly trained on the intended use of the respirator, its limitations, how to don and doff the respirator and how to store and maintain the respirator.

3) When you have not been fit tested to the same make, model, and size of the respirator that you will use in the field. These first three items should be conducted together and on an annual basis in order to refresh the training and to ensure a good fitting respirator is available for use.

4) When you do not meet the requirements for achieving a good seal on the respirator i.e. unshaven face, or wearing of articles that could cause gaps in the mask that prevent it from sealing. The hair from an unshaven face is like the prongs on a brush lifting the sealing surface of the respirator up and allowing contaminated air into the breathing zone. Shave at least every 24 hours or earlier if needed.

5) When you do not know the contaminant level you are trying to protect yourself from - wrong cartridge type or limitations on the amount of contaminant levels that the cartridge is intended for. Check the cartridge charts from your PPE supplier to ensure you are using the right cartridges for the job.

6) When you have not replaced the filtering cartridges after reaching its useful life. How many people skimp on this very important step. What is the use of doing all of the above if you fail to change the cartridges because of cost concerns? Change them when due.

7) Do NOT wear a cartridge respirator in a space that is not under breathable air. It was not designed for this. Instead use a Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA).

Thought Provoking Question 1 - Are there other times when we should NOT wear a respirator that have not been listed above? Please share with our readers.