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August 15, 2005
Do Your Employees Know If Their Respirators Fit?

The basic requirements are just a start. Respirators that are supposed to fit tightly to the face must fit properly—that's one of the requirements of OSHA's Respiratory Protection Standard (29 CFR 1910.134). To meet this requirement, employers are required to conduct a respirator fit test the first time an employee uses one, and at least annually thereafter. Fit tests must also be conducted when a respirator is replaced, or when there is an obvious physical change that might affect proper fit. Further, employees must conduct their own "user seal check" every time they put on their respirators, in one of three ways:

  • Negative fit test—The mask should collapse inward slightly if the user blocks off the inhalation inlets, breathes in, and holds the breath for about 10 seconds.
  • Positive fit test—The mask should bulge outward slightly without leakage if the user blocks off the inlets, breathes out, and holds the breath for about 10 seconds.
  • Any other test recommended by the respirator manufacturer if it is found to be as effective as the negative or positive fit test.

Employees should "own" their own fit testing. The OSHA requirements for fit testing are a good start, but they may not give employees enough of a sense of "ownership" and responsibility for making sure their respirators fit properly.

Why It Matters...
  • According to OSHA, there are more than 60,000 illnesses each year due to acute exposure to airborne hazardous substances.
  • Also according to OSHA, many such illnesses are experienced by employees who are wearing respirators, but are wearing them improperly.
  • There were more than 4,000 OSHA citations under the Respiratory Protection Standard in FY 2004, with penalties of more than $1.2 million.

Self-testing should be more than a rule they follow because someone tells them to. Encourage them to take a few more minutes, each time they wear their respirators, to perform parts of the annual fit test, such as:

  • Making sure the mask feels comfortable—the seal could be broken if the mask is constantly being adjusted for comfort
  • Moving the head up and down, and side to side
  • Smiling or grimacing
  • Speaking
  • Taking a few slow, deep breaths

Explain the "why" as well as the "how." Training employees in how to fit-test their own respirator is only part of the equation. Remind employees of the fundamental reason that respirators must fit properly, which is to prevent inhalation of hazardous dust, gases, and other substances that could seriously affect their health either temporarily or permanently. Make sure they understand the specific reasons they are required to wear respirators (such as lead dust, asbestos, hazardous chemicals, etc.) and their potential health effects. And make it clear that if a respirator does not seem to fit properly, they should have it fully fit-tested or replaced rather than take any chances.

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