Addressing Misguided Beliefs About Respirators

This article touches on some of the common misconceptions about respirators that may exist in the wood flooring industry.

“Wood dust is not a big deal.”
Wood dust is obviously a common exposure in the wood flooring industry, but did you know that it can also be a serious health hazard? For instance, the respiratory system can become sensitized to wood dust, meaning that affected workers can suffer severe allergic reactions after repeated exposures to even low concentrations of wood dust. Beyond the obvious health hazards that can occur when airborne wood dust concentrations are above the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL), even lower amounts (or nuisance dust) can still be an irritant to the respiratory system. So, wearing respiratory protection can be helpful regardless of the exposure levels.

“A ‘mask’ is the same thing as a respirator.”
A “mask” is not the same thing as a respirator. Respirators that are to be used in a workplace need to be tested and approved to National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) standards. For disposable respirators, NIOSH approvals are only granted to those that have been tested and proven to help reduce exposure to particulate hazards per NIOSH test methods. Although a “comfort mask” (also known as a “cold weather mask”) may look similar to a disposable particulate respirator, it won’t have a NIOSH approval because the material it is made of is not capable of filtering out the fine dust particles that can collect deep in your lungs, nor is it designed to create a tight seal to the face. Disposable respirators will have a NIOSH rating printed on them, composed of a letter and number.

Refer to the chart below for NIOSH’s nine filtering classifications.

For wood flooring work, N95 disposable respirators are the most commonly used type of respirator. When properly selected and used, they can help protect workers from a variety of solid particulates in the air, such as wood dust from a floor sander. They are inexpensive, lightweight, and comfortable to wear for longer periods of time.

“I have an N95 respirator. I’m good to go!”
The NIOSH rating is important, but you can’t just grab any old N95 respirator and start working. You need to be using the respirator as part of an OSHA respiratory protection program, as outlined in 29 CFR 1910.134. While we obviously won’t walk through all the OSHA points in this piece, here are a few highlights.

First, an exposure assessment needs to be completed. If respiratory protection is needed, workers then need to be medically cleared to ensure they are healthy enough to wear the respirator. Next, workers will need to be fit-tested to the specific respirator model for the job at hand. Workers will also need to know how to put on a respirator correctly as well as perform a user seal check reliably prior to each use and job. Of course, workers should also read and follow all user instructions as well. As you can see, there are a few more things that go into wearing a respirator than simply throwing one on.

“I can get a good seal even with facial hair,” or “I can wear my respirator when
I have just a bit of stubble.”
The seal of the respirator to your face is an important factor in protecting your respiratory health. Do you know what can affect a proper fit? Facial hair. No matter if it’s a disposable or reusable respirator, the user needs to be cleanly shaven to wear any tight-fitting respirator. You may think that going into work with a 5 o’clock shadow is just fine, but we assure you, it is not. Even a day’s growth of stubble is enough to interfere with the seal to the face. Also, as mentioned earlier, it is important to follow all user instructions and to know how to perform a user seal check to help ensure you are getting that secure seal that you need.

“A reusable respirator forms a better seal.”
Many people assume that because a reusable respirator has a rubber-like facepiece, it will form a better seal to the face and offer more protection than a disposable respirator. The truth of the matter is, when properly fit, a disposable respirator can form a tight seal to the face and offer the same level of protection as a half-face reusable respirator. But just like disposables, you will still need to use the product as part of an OSHA respiratory protection program (i.e., 29 CFR 1910.134), including being medically cleared and fit-tested.

“I just need a charcoal cartridge.”
When you hear people refer to a “charcoal” cartridge, they’re talking about a chemical cartridge with activated carbon inside. One myth about reusable respirators is that any carbon cartridge will work for chemical exposures, but not all chemical cartridges protect the same. In reality, you need to match the cartridge to the chemicals you’re being exposed to. This is because the carbon in the cartridge is treated with additives to help adsorb specific chemical types. It’s critical to look on the packaging for more information on which chemicals the cartridges are meant to help protect against.

Keep in mind that in the wood flooring industry, there are certain chemicals that are particularly dangerous that you need to look out for. For example, keep an eye out for methylene chloride. This is a dangerous chemical commonly found in strippers that cartridges are not effective at filtering out. This is also true for the chemical methanol, which can sometimes be found in certain finishes. If you are exposed to either of these chemicals in concentrations that exceed OSHA’s limits, you would then need to use a supplied air system to help protect your lungs. There are many others out there, so do your homework before starting a job.

These are just a few of the common misconceptions in the industry. If you have any others that you’d like us to debunk, we’d like to hear from you. Feel free to call 3M at 1.800.243.4630.

Jason Lunn is Senior Application Development Engineer for 3M. Rebecca L. Schumann is Industrial Hygienist, Personal Safety Division of 3M.

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