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October 29, 2013
Respiratory protection: Tips for complying with OSHA's fourth most violated standard

Editor’s Note: This article is Part 4 in a series on OSHA’s top violations for fiscal year 2013. Be sure to check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 for information on the complete top-10 list, the top construction violations, and common hazard communication mistakes.

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Once again, respiratory protection is number four on OSHA’s list of most-violated standards. Do you know how to avoid making the same mistakes that led to the 3,879 cited violations of respiratory protection rules in fiscal year 2013? Keep reading to find out.

Written respiratory protection programs

One of the most common mistakes employers make is failing to have a written respiratory protection program. If your employees are exposed to airborne contaminants, it’s not enough to simply provide them with respirators. You must also have a written plan that lays out the details of a comprehensive respiratory protection program. Required elements of a written respiratory protection plan include:

  • Criteria and procedures for determining which employees and/or job tasks require respirators;
  • Procedures for selecting and fit-testing respirators;
  • A plan for conducting training on when and how to use respirators;
  • Proper handling, storage, and use procedures;
  • Medical evaluations of employees required to use respirators;
  • The name and/or job title of the respiratory protection program administrator; and
  • Procedures for regularly evaluating the effectiveness of your respiratory protection program.

Need help designing a respiratory protection program? Download our customizable Respiratory Protection Plan and tailor it to the conditions at your facility.

Respirator selection

Another common mistake is using an inappropriate type of respirator for the conditions at a worksite. Employers must evaluate the respiratory hazards their workers are exposed to in order to make a proper respirator selection. In addition, respirators must be certified by NIOSH and used in accordance with NIOSH specifications.

There are two major categories of respirators: air-purifying respirators, which can be powered or non-powered and come in quarter masks half masks, and full facemasks, and atmosphere-supplying respirators, which include supplied-air respirators and self-contained breathing apparatuses. Depending on the type of respirator and how much coverage it provides (e.g., quarter mask, half mask, full facepiece), a respirator is given an assigned protection factor (APF). Employers must ensure that employees’ respirators meet or exceed the required APF for the hazards they are exposed to.

NIOSH also specifies the types of respirator cartridges and canisters that are approved for protection against various hazards. The following color-coded labels are used to communicate these categories:

  • White: acid gas (e.g., sulfuric acid)
  • Yellow: Acid gas and organic vapor
  • Brown: Acid, ammonia, and organic vapors
  • Red: Acid gas, ammonia, carbon monoxide, and organic vapors
  • Green: Ammonia
  • Blue: Carbon monoxide gas
  • White and yellow: Chlorine
  • Orange: Nonradioactive dusts, fumes, and mists
  • Black: Organic vapor
  • Olive: Other vapors and gases

Need help figuring out which respirator to use? Download our Assigned Protection Factor Table for an easy-to-use reference.

Other issues: Fit, training, and storage

Your respiratory protection program won’t do its job if your employees’ respirators don’t fit properly. Before employees begin to wear respirators on the job, they must be medically evaluated to determine their ability to use a respirator and fit-tested.

Fit-testing must be repeated whenever a different respirator face piece is used, at least annually after the first test, and whenever physical changes to the employee could affect respirator fit. Keep in mind that for tight-fitting respirators, facial hair can interfere with a proper seal. Detailed information on fit-testing procedures can be found here.

To protect your investment, it’s also critical to train employees on using respirators properly. Employees should understand why respirator use is necessary, the limitations and capabilities of respirators, and the proper procedures for using, storing, cleaning, and handling respirators. Once employees have mastered this knowledge, they’ll be fully equipped to protect themselves from the airborne hazards in your facility.

Not sure where to begin for respirator training? Download our Respiratory Protection PowerPoint presentation and use it to train your employees.

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