Polish Up on Respiratory Protection

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By Jason Lunn and Rebecca Schumann

Before starting any sand and finish job, certain health and safety precautions need to be taken. This is important for the safety of you, the crew, the customer and their property. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has published rules and regulations that aim to protect the health and safety of workers on the jobsite. You can check OSHA requirements in your area by visiting osha.gov.

In our industry, there are a variety of chemicals used and dusts encountered that may require the use of respiratory protection. In general, respirators are used for the removal of these contaminants from the air. Disposable particulate respirators help filter out certain airborne particles (such as wood dust), and reusable respirators with chemical cartridges help filter out certain chemical gases and vapors (such as finish or adhesive solvents). But, you can’t just throw on a respirator and think you’re good to go. A comprehensive respiratory protection program typically needs to be implemented and followed in order to be compliant with OSHA.

Respiratory protection programs can be complex though, and there are a number of program requirements that need to be managed and executed – which is why a program administrator is needed, and required by OSHA, to oversee the program. This program administrator is responsible for the entire respiratory protection program that a company and its employees need to follow. One component of the program is to evaluate employees to ensure they are medically fit to wear a respirator while working. This is usually done through a medical questionnaire that is reviewed and cleared by a physician. Medical clearance is mandatory when employers require respiratory protection regardless of the type of respirator used. OSHA also requires fit testing when respirator use is required, and the fit test needs to be repeated at least annually for each type of respirator used or if any physical condition changes that could impact fit. Other requirements include proper training on respiratory protection, including how to wear a respirator correctly, how to check the seal, and also how to care for and store the respirator. When a respiratory protection program is followed, the program will also determine the type of respirator needed for the job. Again, full details are available from OSHA at OSHA.gov.

Now that you have a brief overview of OSHA compliance for respiratory protection, let’s take a look at some of the types of respirators out there.

Disposable Particulate Respirator

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The N95-class respirator is the minimum filtration recommended when working with wood dust. Wood dust becomes a potential health problem when wood particles from processes such as sanding and cutting become airborne. One particularly heavy exposure is removing and emptying the hopper from the dust collection system. Keep in mind, having a dust collection system doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t need respiratory protection. Also, even if you don’t see any dust, that doesn’t mean there is nothing hazardous in the air – for instance, workers may be exposed to wood dust particles that are too fine to see.

Breathing certain wood particles may cause allergic respiratory symptoms, mucosal and non-allergic respiratory symptoms, as well as the potential for serious respiratory ailments. So, even if your exposure is below the OSHA limit, workers or their employers may still want workers to wear a respirator to minimize any potential exposure. Proper selection and use of a disposable particulate respirator helps reduce airborne exposure to particulates, but does not help protect against gases or vapors.

Half-Facepiece Elastomeric Respirator

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This type of respirator is a tight-fitting, air-purifying respirator that is typically used with either replaceable filters (for particulates) or cartridges (for gases and vapors). When used with the correct cartridges, this type of respirator may be used when applying floor stain and finish. If you are only concerned about exposure to dust (for example, wood dust from sanding) a pair of particulate filters can be used with a reusable respirator. Another configuration is a particulate filter with a layer of carbon embedded inside of it to reduce nuisance odors. One good example of when this would be appropriate is if someone was sanding pre-finished flooring. This type of particulate filter can help filter out the dust released while the carbon layer can help reduce the nuisance odor created from sanding the finish. In any case, filters or cartridges are attached to a rubber or silicone facepiece that covers the nose and mouth.

In addition to the wide variety of cartridge and filter options, another benefit of reusable respirators is that they are designed to be cleaned, decontaminated, and reused while the filters/cartridges can simply be replaced at the end of their service life. The filter or cartridge’s useful service life defines how long it provides adequate protection from harmful contaminants in the air. The service life of a filter or cartridge depends upon many factors including environmental conditions, breathing rate, cartridge filtering capacity, and the amount of contaminants in the air. Be sure to check with the manufacturer of the filter or cartridge for proper storage and service life recommendations which should all be addressed in the respiratory protection program.

Full-Facepiece Elastomeric Respirator

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A full-facepiece respirator can help protect the user’s eyes and face due to its impact-resistant lens, and also help protect against certain liquid splashes. Like the half-facepiece elastomeric respirator, this respirator is a tight-fitting, air-purifying respirator with replaceable filters or cartridges attached to a rubber or silicone facepiece. But, a full-facepiece can actually offer a higher protection factor if it is quantitatively fit tested (see OSHA’s website for more information). And just like the other two types of respirators, a full-facepiece also requires fit testing at least annually. As previously mentioned, the filter or cartridge’s useful service life defines how long it provides adequate protection from harmful contaminants in the air, and the service life of a filter or cartridge depends upon many factors including environmental conditions, breathing rate, cartridge filtering capacity, and the amount of contaminants in the air. Always check with the manufacturer of the filter or cartridge for proper storage and service life recommendations.

Since all three types of respirators are tight-fitting facepieces that rely on an effective seal to the face, a user will always need to be clean shaven while wearing a respirator. Any amount of facial hair could potentially interfere with the seal to the face. Remember, if PPE is not comfortable, employees are less likely to wear it or may even take it off while still working. It’s best to engage employees in the selection process so they can find a respirator that not only fits them correctly, but also fits most comfortably. Safety products, including respiratory protection, can be acquired through your local floor distributor so don’t hesitate to reach out to them if you have product questions.

On a final note, it’s important to remember that in addition to being a vital health issue, following health and safety regulations is also required by law. Failure to comply can cost thousands of dollars in fines and a loss in productivity. But worst case scenario, it could lead to a loss of life. It’s not worth the risk so keep the health and safety of yourself and your workers a top priority.

Jason T. Lunn is Sr. Technical Service Engineer at St. Paul, Minnesota-based 3M. He can be reached at jtlunn@mmm.com. Rebecca L. Schumann is Industrial Hygienist & Technical Service within the Personal Safety Division of St. Paul, Minnesota-based 3M. She can be reached at blschumann@mmm.com.

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