Based on statistics published by the HSE in 2017, there are around 12,000 deaths each year in the UK from lung disease linked to past exposure to hazardous substances at work. There are also around 18,000 new cases each year of self-reported breathing or lung problems caused by work. A figure contained in the governments Labour Force Survey. Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations, employers must either prevent or reduce a worker’s exposure to hazardous substances. In the case of respiratory hazards, this can often involve using respiratory protective equipment (RPE).
Understanding the hazards
There are three main types of respiratory hazards:
- Harmful substances in the form of airborne particulates
- Harmful substances in the form of gases and vapours
- Work in areas where there is or could be low oxygen levels or oxygen deficiency.
Workers may be exposed to one of these hazards or a combination of them.
Particulate hazards are usually in the form of dust, but can also include viruses and micro-organisms, especially in the medical and food industries. Dust can be produced from a wide range of industries; construction, engineering, woodworking, stonemasonry. The finest dust particles are the ones that pose the greatest potential risk, for three reasons. Firstly, because they hang in the air, increasing the likelihood that they will be inhaled. Secondly, because they are so small that can bypass our natural defense system e.g. nose hairs. Finally, is it also usually invisible, meaning workers are less likely to notice a need to protect themselves.
Gas and vapour hazards can be given off by many industrial materials, such as volatile solvents (e.g. acetone or ethyl acetate), or petroleum-based chemicals (e.g. benzene). They are also created when a material is purposely made to be airborne, like spray paint.
If inhaled, gases and vapours can enter:
- The upper airways or respiratory tract, including the mouth, nose, sinuses, and larynx
- The middle airways, including the trachea and bronchi
- The lower airways, including the bronchioles and alveoli, damaging the respiratory system.
From there they can also cross the alveolar walls to enter the blood system. Meaning it is easily distributed around the whole body, reaching the liver, kidneys and nervous systems. As some of the chemicals don’t have a strong aroma or taste, they can easily be inhaled at dangerous levels before the worker will know they are present in the air.
As well as in confined space, oxygen deficiency can pose a risk in processes such as welding, which reduces the oxygen content in the air and introduces new gases into the air. Between them, particulates, gas hazards and oxygen deficiency can cause various forms of occupational lung disease. These include:
- Respiratory cancers, such as lung cancer
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- occupational asthma
- pneumoconiosis, a restrictive disease caused by the inhalation of dust
- other non-cancerous respiratory diseases.
Most of these are long-latency diseases, meaning that symptoms typically only show many years after the original exposure.
Hierarchy of controls
For the protection of workers against respiratory hazards, employers must follow an established hierarchy of controls. The first step is to try to eliminate the hazards altogether – for example, by using a process that does not produce hazardous particulates, gases or vapours. If this isn’t practical, the next step is to substitute the hazardous substances for something less harmful. After this, employers and health and safety managers should look to engineering solutions to reduce the hazard, for instance by installing extraction or ventilation systems. Next, they should consider administrative solutions, such as ensuring no one is working near to the hazard unnecessarily.
Often, a respiratory hazard will remain even after all these steps have been taken. In these situations, personal protective equipment (PPE) – or in this case, respiratory protective equipment (RPE) – is the “last resort”. If it fails, the worker will be left exposed.
Ensuring RPE is adequate
When selecting any type of PPE, it must be both adequate to protect against the hazards faced, and suitable for the individual task, and environment. With RPE, employers should first narrow down their options to those capable of protecting against the particular hazard, or hazards, identified in their risk assessment.
Next, they should eliminate those types of RPE that do not provide enough protection for the quantity of the hazard present (or likely to be produced) in the workplace environment.
RPE can be categorized in several ways. Respirators may be classed as either filtering or supplied air models; by respirator class; or, perhaps most usefully for employers and health and safety professionals, according to whether they are disposable, reusable, powered or supplied air devices.
Ensuring RPE is suitable
The next step is to identify RPE choices that are not only adequate in terms of protection but also suitable for the individual task, and environment. To do this, employers should include workers in the selection process, allowing them to trial a wide range of options.
One of the main factors affecting suitability is the comfort. As this can heavily influence rates of compliance with PPE requirements. Workers who find their PPE uncomfortable may be likely to wear it incorrectly or remove it altogether. Particularly if they required to wear it for long periods. In the case of RPE, if a worker finds their respirator too tight, they may be tempted to let it hang around their neck in situations where it should be covering their face. This can reduce or even eliminate the protection provided, leaving the wearer exposed to potential hazards.
In 2009, 3M surveyed 127 health and safety managers from various industries. Only 30% of respondents thought that PPE was always worn in their workplace, with 70% believing that workers occasionally omitted to wear it. When asked why they thought this was the case 39% cited lack of comfort. This answer was second only to “workers could not be bothered”, which 47% of respondents chose.
The importance of comfort has also been highlighted by the HSE. Which in its online guidance on the basics of COSHH says: “When employees find PPE comfortable, they are far more likely to wear it.”
A proper fit
To work properly, tight-fitting respirators – whether disposable, full or half-face reusable models – must form an adequate seal with the wearer’s face. If this seal breaks, the wearer risks breathing in unfiltered, potentially hazardous air. Rendering the RPE inadequate to provide the required level of protection.
Fit testing is the method of ensuring that a respirator is capable of sealing adequately with a particular individuals face. It is mandatory for tight-fitting respirators, and should not be confused with a fit check/seal check, which should be performed each time a worker dons their respirator.
For disposable respirators and reusable half masks, in-house testing using a qualitative taste test is common practice. This method involves placing a hood over the user’s head while they are wearing the equipment, then spraying a fine mist of either a bitter or sweet tasting solution into the enclosed area.
If you think you and your company need face mask fit and testing to ensure you are protecting your employees, check out the link below.
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