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Is your respirator really protecting you?

19 August 2013

Recent statistics released from the Fit2Fit accreditation scheme for face fit testers have highlighted serious concerns about the competency of RPE face fit testers, explains the BSIF

If you are a user of Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) that requires a face seal, it is a requirement of the HSE that each respirator is face fit checked to each user. This is to ensure that the mask is capable of achieving a satisfactory seal on each user’s face and will not allow inward leakage, when worn correctly.
To undertake this face fit checking, it is essential (and a requirement) that the RPE face fit tester is competent in undertaking the process. Recent statistics released from the Fit2Fit accreditation scheme for face fit testers have highlighted serious concerns in this area.
While Fit2Fit have assessed over 300 candidates to accredit their competence at RPE fit testing, of these only 60% initially passed. Of those who fail the assessment, less than 50% have actually come back to be reassessed. In other words of the 300 assessed some 60 candidates have failed to prove their competence in RPE fit testing yet may be still offering the service. These numbers just represent the tip of the iceberg. Fit2Fit’s initial assessment of the numbers involved in RPE fit testing was many times higher than the 300 already assessed. In fact Fit2Fit’s opinion is that we have only seen fit testers who believe they are competent and could pass the assessment. The remaining majority have concerns in their abilities and thus have not applied.

Considering the statistic that more than 10,000 people die each year due to prior exposure to occupational respiratory hazards and we know that poor fitting respirators are a cause of exposure to the hazard, the problem of incompetent fit testing is very serious.
The Fit2Fit scheme was originally established by BSIF with the strong support of the HSE because it was recognised that the quality of RPE fit testing in the UK was often unsatisfactory. Whilst the guidelines for RPE fit testing supplied by the HSE (HSE282-28) offer excellent and simple advice, their implementation was often poor. On too many occasions, the RPE fit tester had received no training, was frequently the person who had been wearing RPE the longest (with the inherent bad habits they had developed) or had been trained but had become ‘rusty’ and was not testing adequately. Poor fit testing all too easily leads to poor fit, which exposes the wearer to the respiratory hazard. This brings us back to the 10,000 statistic.
The RPE fit testing programme has been carefully designed to ensure at the end of each fit test the wearer will be ‘passed’ to use RPE that will offer a satisfactory fit, or an alternative suggested.  The various exercises used within the testing regimes are designed to ‘test’ the robustness of the face seal in working situations, whilst the overall test will ensure each individual is adequately protected if the mask is donned correctly. Changing the processes, deleting them or just undertaking them incompetently could mean the face seal really does not occur in the work situation and the employee is inadequately protected. If you have decided that RPE is necessary, then wasting its cost by not ensuring it works is expensive, life threatening and may lead to prosecution or litigation.
In summary, 10,000+ people die each year due to prior exposure to respiratory hazards! More than 20% of those who indicated they undertook RPE fit testing and were assessed were shown to be incompetent and this is likely to be a substantial understatement. Finally the HSE requires competent fit testing to comply with the law.