Golden years

28 January 2016

Mark Andrews, global product manager Powered Air, Halfmask & Airline at Scott Safety examines respiratory protection for the ageing workforce.

In the UK today, almost a quarter (23%) of workers are aged over 60 with this figure set to rise to a third (30.7%) by 2020.

Irrespective of age, employers have the same responsibility under the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974, to ensure that all workers are kept safe at work. Whilst procured as a last line of defence, what considerations should be made for provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to older workers and in particular, how should the use of Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) be approached?

To ensure that RPE will provide adequate protection for the wearer, tight fitting RPE must be fit tested. As people come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and as the shape of our face changes with age, weight or the addition of facial hair, it is unlikely that one particular type of RPE facepiece will fit everyone. Regular face fit testing is critical in ensuring that the equipment selected is suitable.

The cardiovascular system generally declines with age, which impacts upon a worker’s uptake of oxygen. For an older employee in a manual position, these changes in lung function can reduce their ability to do certain active tasks. If also required to wear RPE, additional strain can be put upon the worker so it is vital that the correct mask or respirator is selected to meet their respiratory needs.

Is the worker visually impaired? Half mask respirators protect the nose and mouth only, requiring the user to wear safety goggles. If an older worker is visually impaired and relies upon spectacles to see clearly, then special consideration needs to be made for goggles with an appropriate spectacle insert. Some masks are now designed with a low profile and swept back filters to provide an unobstructed field of vision and allow compatibility with corrective lenses.

Does the worker have reduced respiratory function? To reduce respiratory burden on the worker, half masks with exhalation valves help to reduce breathing resistance particularly at moderate and high work rate. Unlike PAPR which assists breathing, half and full face masks rely upon the wearer to draw air through the mask which puts additional burden on the respiratory system. The presence of exhalation valves aid reducing inhaled C02 and dead-space temperature within the mask to improve the user comfort.

Powered Air Purifying Respirator (PAPR) systems incorporate a blower to power air to the wearer, increasing comfort and facial cooling. The increased flowrate counters exercise performance reduction and studies now demonstrate a marked increase in perceived comfort and tolerability when using PAPR. In the case of an older worker, this increase flowrate puts far less stress on their respiratory system and could enable them to work for longer periods of time than a worker wearing a traditional half or full face mask.

Increasing user comfort

RPE that fits well and is comfortable to wear will encourage employee use regardless of age. There are some tips for employers to consider when fitting out older workers with RPE to make them as comfortable as possible whilst working.

Lightweight headtops are available for varied respirator versions to accommodate a wide range of hazards. Choosing a lightweight option with a soft seal which is easy to don and doff will reduce the wearer burden and provide optimal comfort for longer periods of time.

As discussed, PAPR helps to improve the protection level of workers whilst reducing the work of breathing and therefore impact upon the respiratory system of any worker. A variable flowrate can improve the wearer comfort and increase the protection factor as well.

Selecting low airflow resistance particle filters along with particle filters that resist clogging will help to avoid undue work of breathing to draw air through the mask. Changing out particulate filters before they become clogged is also important to reduce respiratory burden.

Catering for an older workforce is the reality for every employer in the UK and Europe. However, in safety critical industries; additional considerations must be made when protecting older workers. Ultimately, whether a worker is fresh into the workforce, or from an older generation, it is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that PPE is fit for purpose and that every worker is individually catered for.

To download your copy of the whitepaper ‘Consideration of the effects of ageing in selection of personal protective equipment (PPE) with a specific focus on respiratory protective equipment (RPE)’ please click here.