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Respiratory protection – Every breath you take

13 October 2023

BREATHING IN hazardous airborne substances causes ill health and therefore suitable controls need to be put into place.

Silicosis, mesothelioma, lung cancer, COPD and occupational asthma are diseases typically caused by inhalation of dust over a long period of time. Ideally control measures should include elimination, substitution and/or engineering controls, however respiratory protective equipment (RPE) is also often part of the control strategy. When RPE is used, every breath taken needs to be free of the inhalation hazard and that requires that the RPE is working right, fitting right and not being compromised by other head worn personal protective equipment (PPE)…. and of course, being worn in the first place!

Setting out to purchase and implement RPE can be a challenge and many questions come to mind… what types of RPE are available, what type do I need, does it need fit testing, how should it be used and maintained and what training do I need to provide.. are typical examples. This article highlights a few points around selection and use of RPE.

Things can (only) get better

Occupational lung diseases typically have a long latency meaning the underlying cause is from exposure over many years and therefore the current deaths are a result of past working conditions. While some progress has been made on reducing exposure to asbestos, for which the death rate is assumed to fall over the next decade, the latest figure for breathing problems caused or made worse by work remains sadly stubborn at around 17,000 new cases per year. Of the various inhalation hazards to which workers are exposed, dust from stone, cement, brick, and concrete, i.e., construction dust, accounts for a large proportion. Over the last two years we have also had a stark reminder that infectious diseases are also inhalation hazards that require effective RPE deployment.

Get ready – selecting RPE

At the start of the selection process, it is vital that a thorough risk assessment is undertaken. The risk assessment should consider the hazard, its nature, the sources contributing to the exposure, the degree of exposure, the working environment, the tasks, and importantly, the workers carrying out the tasks. Having a detailed risk assessment will assist to select RPE that is adequate and suitable.

Adequate RPE is right for the hazard and reduces exposure to the level required to protect the wearer’s health.

To select adequate RPE, the hazard substance, its nature, form and concentration need to be identified. This will help to select both the right type of RPE and right filter type and class. Knowing the concentration of the hazard will help to determine the level of protection required by comparing the RPE’s Assigned Protection Factor (APF) (see Table 1) with the Workplace Exposure Level (WEL) which can be found for most hazardous substances in HSE EH40. Where the exposure concentration is not known the RPE Selector tool is a very useful resource.

Suitable RPE is right for the wearer, task and environment, such that the wearer can work freely and without additional risks due to the RPE.

Selecting suitable RPE for the wearer should consider several factors including wear time, work rate, comfort, pre-existing medical conditions - and for where tight-fitting RPE is selected – the fit of the facepiece on the wearer not forgetting facial hair that may prevent a good seal between the wearer’s face and the RPE. Addressing suitability for the task and environment should consider such factors as mobility, vision and communication needs and local environmental requirements. 

HSE research into the factors influencing the implementation RPE programmes found that selecting suitable RPE and implementing and managing correct use of RPE were amongst the most difficult areas of implementing RPE in the workplace.

Use and misuse – we’re only human after all

Behavioural factors play a very important part in how RPE is used at work. Perception to risk varies between individuals and can be greatly influenced by group social norms. Workers may genuinely think that the risk they are taking is legitimate and best for the business. When asked, these are examples of responses given for the reasons why people do not use their RPE correctly: “I’m only exposed for a short time”, “It’s easier and quicker this way”, “I couldn’t find the RPE”, “It can’t see the hazard”, “We’ve done it this way for years”, “My colleagues don’t wear their RPE”, “My manager doesn’t wear their RPE”. The last statement is a real telling statement – if managers and supervisors fail in their H&S leadership by not setting a good example, it will send out the message that H&S violations are acceptable. Managers and supervisors need to set a good example to positively influence standards of behaviour; the benefits of positive peer-pressure should not be underestimated.

Feeling protected for ‘most of the time’ can lead those needing to wear RPE to complete quick tasks without RPE. As shown in Figure 2, not wearing RPE for only a short period of time when exposed to a respiratory hazard has a dramatic effect on the overall protection provided. In this example for an item of RPE with an APF of 40, it only takes a few minutes of non-wear to reduce the protection afforded to the wearer by half.

Put on a happy face

To ensure that the selected RPE has the potential to provide adequate protection for individual wearers, tight fitting RPE, i.e., disposable filtering facepieces, half masks and full facepiece - should be fit tested as part of the selection process. Face fit testing is a process that assesses the ability of a specific facepiece to seal adequately to the individual wearer thus minimising leakage via the face seal. This is a key step in the selection process which should be conducted by a competent person irrespective of the fit test method of choice. BSIF Fit2Fit scheme plays a vital role in driving up fit testing competence and is a route by which a fit tester’s competence can be demonstrated. Table 1 shows suitable fit test methods for a range of common RPE types.

A fit test also helps with the assessment of the respirator’s comfort, compatibility with other PPE and overall suitability for the wearer, along with being an ideal training opportunity for the wearer on the correct fitting and use of the RPE.

There are two basic types of RPE fit testing- qualitative (QLFT) and quantitative (QNFT) – both of which are covered by the Fit2Fit scheme.

QLFT is a pass/fail test based on the wearer’s subjective assessment of any leakage from the face seal region, by sensing the test agent. UK accepted QLFT methods are based on a bitter or sweet tasting aerosol. 

QNFT gives an objective numerical measure of face fit called a fit factor. QNFT methods require specialised equipment and are considered more complicated to carry out than qualitative methods. UK accepted QNFT methods are based on either aerosol particle counting or controlled negative pressure.

Let’s work together

Do not forget to consider PPE compatibility. It is likely that when respiratory protection is required, other forms of PPE is also required. Considering each in isolation may result in the selection of PPE that is not compatible, i.e., PPE that is not able to be worn together without problems or conflict – therefore not able to protect the wearer from the respective hazards. It can be tricky to select a compatible combination of head worn PPE and when a combination is achieved it may not work for every individual, and so an item of integrated PPE that comprises respiratory, eye, head and even hearing may be a great solution. Powered RPE as well as providing integrated protection, additionally offer reduced breathing resistance and increased comfort. 

Compatibility is a key consideration addressed by competent facepiece fit testers who will always seek to understand the other forms of head protection required to be worn with the RPE and ensure that any potential conflict between the RPE and other items of PPE is addressed during a fit test. An important consideration to note is that if there is a change in the other head worn PPE, for example a change to the eye protection, a new fit test should be considered.

Even when RPE is not required, it is recommended that compatibility between for example eye and hearing protection is addressed during the selection process: those offering fit testing of hearing protection will be able to offer further advice.

Help – I need somebody

Selection of adequate and suitable RPE can be complex but thankfully there is a lot of help and guidance available that can help you through the process of selection and use. RPE manufacturers and suppliers are keen to help and offer great advice across the whole range of RPE products and common applications and hazards. There is of course HSE guidance such as HSG53 and INDG479 which are essential reading materials for practical implementation of RPE and facepiece fit testing. When it comes to obtaining RPE (and PPE) it’s not just anybody that we should purchase the RPE from. To ensure that you are receiving genuine products and sound advice, seek a supplier who is a member of the BSIF Registered safety supplier scheme (RSSS- Registered Safety Supplier | BSIF)


Health and safety at work Summary statistics for Great Britain 2021


HSE RR798 - Factors influencing the implementation of RPE programmes in the workplace


HSE EH40 EH40/2005 Workplace exposure limits


RPE Selector tool


HSE HSG53 Respiratory protective equipment at work: A practical guide. 


HSE INDG479 Guidance on respiratory protective equipment (RPE) fit testing