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Something in the air

08 May 2019

Providing protection against potential respiratory hazards is essential, and employers need to make sure they get it right. George Elliott offers a four-step approach to choosing the right respiratory protective equipment (RPE).

EXPOSURE TO respiratory hazards in the workplace can lead to extremely serious conditions, including cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Every year, around 12,000 people die from respiratory diseases caused by past working conditions, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)¹.Nearlytwo-thirds of these are the result of asbestos-related diseases or COPD.

Furthermore, the HSE estimates that each year some 18,000 new cases of breathing or lung problems are developed because of exposure to hazards in the workplace1.

Under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, employers are required to provide and maintain a safe working environment, so far as is reasonably practicable. Employers therefore have a duty to protect employees against potential respiratory hazards. 

The first step is to carry out a risk assessment to identify any airborne hazards. Employers should then take steps to limit these hazards, either by eliminating them completely, replacing or substituting them with something less harmful, or introducing engineering controls, such as ventilation systems, to reduce their presence. Administration controls to reduce individual’s exposure to the hazard(s) should also be a consideration. 

However, respiratory hazards will sometimes remain even after such measures have been taken. In these cases, employees will require respiratory protective equipment (RPE).

With such a wide range of RPE available, knowing which product to choose can seem daunting, but it needn’t be. 

The main thing to remember is that, as with any other type of personal protective equipment (PPE), RPE must be both adequate to protect against the hazard(s) present and suitable for the individual, task and environment.

To help employers meet these requirements, 3M has devised a simple guide to RPE selection, involving four steps – ensuring RPE is adequate, ensuring RPE is suitable followed by subsequent validation of the RPE along with suitable training.

Ensuring RPE is adequate

Adequate RPE is that which is right for the particular hazard(s) faced and is capable of reducing exposure to the level required to protect the wearer’s health.

To find adequate RPE, employers should first narrow down their options to include only those that are capable of protecting against the particular hazard(s) identified in the initial risk assessment. These hazards could be particulates, gases, vapours, or some combination of these. 

Next, employers should whittle down their options further, to include only RPE that is also capable of protecting against the particular quantity of the hazard present in their workplace.

The HSE gives each RPE type an ‘assigned protection factor’ (APF), denoting the level of protection it offers. This can be cross-referenced with both the employer’s risk assessment, if it includes the concentration levels of contaminants found in the workplace, and Workplace Exposure Limits published in the HSE’s EH40 document, which can be downloaded free from the organisation’s website. 

Minimum APFs required for certain tasks are often found in HSE guidance sheets which cover a range of industries and specific applications.

3M’s free Select and Service Life Software – available at www.3M.co.uk/selectrespirator– can also help to simplify this process. By entering details of contaminants and their concentrations, companies can receive tailored product suggestions. The software covers more than 700 chemicals, and also offers a method for estimating the service life of certain 3M filters.

Ensuring RPE is suitable

Suitable RPE is that which is right for the individual wearer, the task and the environment. When RPE is suitable, it allows the wearer to work freely, without causing additional risks.

Another major benefit of using suitable RPE generally is that wearers are less likely to remove it or wear it incorrectly because they find it uncomfortable, or in order to communicate effectively with one another, particularly if they have to wear it for long periods.

Failing to comply with RPE requirements can reduce or even eliminate the protection provided, leaving the wearer exposed to potential hazards.

Comfort is one of the primary suitability selection considerations to be taken into account, as it is one of the main factors affecting rates of compliance with PPE requirements.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) share this opinion, stating on its website that: “When employees find PPE comfortable they are far more likely to wear it.”²

Workers who find their RPE uncomfortable may be more likely to wear it incorrectly or remove it altogether, particularly if they are required to use it for long periods.

This can reduce or even eliminate the protection provided, leaving the wearer exposed to potential hazards.

This problem can affect compliance rates for all types of RPE, from disposable respirators which workers may remove before completing their task fully, to reusable respirators, which they may choose to loosen up the straps if they feel uncomfortable.

RPE may be designed to aid comfort when worn. For example, 3M has developed its new 3M™ Aura™ Particulate Respirators 9300+Gen3 Series with an advanced Cool Flow™ Comfort Valve which opens 37% easier than the original 3M™ Cool Flow™ Valve. This results in 36%, additional exhaled air passing through the valve with the FFP3 9332+Gen3 model compared to its predecessor the Aura™ 9332+. 

Size and shape of RPE is also an important consideration. Because all people are different and comfort is so personal to the user, it is important to involve workers in the RPE selection process – something 3M promotes through its Science of Safety campaign.

Once health and safety managers have narrowed down their RPE options to those that can provide adequate protection, they should consider offering workers a range of choices.

As well as helping workers to find comfortable options, when individuals are involved in the selection process they become more invested in the decision and are therefore more likely to comply.

To help with this process, 3M offers extensive free product trials, providing a great way for staff to try a solution and see if it works for them. The company also provides questionnaires to help health and safety managers get the most valuable feedback.

To assess which options workers find suitable, health and safety managers may also use methods such as staff surveys, focus groups and roundtable discussions. 

By helping to identify comfortable RPE options that can improve compliance rates, involving workers in the selection process can save businesses time and money in the long run. 


For tight-fitting respirators to work, they must form an adequate seal with the wearer’s face. This applies whether the respirator is disposable or reusable, half face or full face. If the seal leaks, the wearer risks breathing in unfiltered, potentially hazardous air. 

To ensure that a respirator is capable of creating an adequate seal when worn by a particular individual, face fit testing is required. 

Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health(COSHH) Regulations 2002, employers are required to face fit test wearers of tight-fitting RPE³.

It is vital that fit testing is done while the individual is wearing other PPE required in their daily work that may interfere with the respirator seal, such as safety eyewear. 

Fit testing should be performed during initial selection, and whenever there is a change that might affect RPE performance. For example, if the wearer loses or gains a significant amount of weight, or undergoes dental work, the shape of their face may change. It is also good practice to repeat fit testing periodically.

RPE fit testing may be conducted by a competent person in-house, or by an external service provider. Accreditation under the British Safety Industry Federation’s Fit2Fit scheme is a good way to judge the competence of fit testers, although such accreditation is notmandatory. 3M offers a fit testing service delivered by Fit2Fit accredited testers.

Additionally, wearers of tight-fitting RPE must be clean shaven under the area of the face seal, as facial hair can compromise the seal. Alternatively, those with facial hair may wear certain loose-fitting powered and supplied air respirators. Employers can also consider these options if they wish to avoid face fit testing.


Another important stage of the RPE selection process is training. Without the correct knowledge, workers may be at risk of unnecessary exposure.

Training should begin with outlining the need for protection in the first place. Workers must understand why and when RPE is required.

Next, the respirator’s limitations should be explained so that users know what they can and cannot rely on their RPE to protect them against.

Putting on and removing the equipment should also be covered. This is important as it will affect user acceptance of the RPE, as well as compliance rates. 3M has produced instructional videos demonstrating the fitting of its RPE, which can be found on the 3M UK and Ireland YouTube channel.

When considering reusable RPE, training should also cover maintenance, cleaning and storage to prevent damage and contamination. This can also save businesses money in the long run, by reducing the need for premature replacements.

More information about selecting RPE can be found in the HSE guide ‘Respiratory Protective Equipment at Work (HSG53)’, available free at http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/priced/hsg53.pdf





George Elliott is a senior application engineer at 3M. For more information, visit www.3M.co.uk/safety