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Respiratory protection: Joining the debate

18 May 2016

At this year’s Health & Safety Event, visitors got the opportunity to ‘join the debate’ by taking part in the hugely popular Safety Dialogue series. Sponsored by science-based technology company 3M, the sessions provided the perfect platform for people to speak to experts and share their own experiences of work place health and safety. Alan McArthur, technical supervisor at 3M and panellist at the event, reflects on the most topical questions surrounding respiratory protection.

Each year there are around 12,000 deaths due to occupational respiratory diseases, so it was no surprise that the Safety Dialogue sessions dedicated to respiratory protective equipment (RPE) were popular.

With a host of panellists from a range of expert organisations, including BOHS and the Health & Safety Laboratory, attendees were able to discuss their challenges and gain expert advice.

During the discussions, there were two main themes that dominated the debate: facial hair and fit testing. So I’m going to shine a spotlight on these two very important issues.

Facial hair

One of the biggest concerns raised by members of the audience was the difficulty of introducing clean shaven policies to their workplaces. While we have always strongly advised that workers should not have facial hair under the area of the seal of a tight-fitting respirator, the issue has become increasingly important as more and more men are sporting stubble and beards due to a number of factors, including fashion trends and religious beliefs.

This is why 3M welcomed the findings published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) last year, which confirmed that stubble from as early as 24 hours after shaving can impact on the efficiency of RPE.

When wearing tight-fitting RPE, the user must be clean shaven in the area of the face seal or this will compromise the level of protection and increase the chance of exposure to airborne hazards. However, this does not mean that men have to be totally hair free. Facial hair which does not encroach on the area of the seal, will not affect the protection offered.

Certain industries have been quicker to adopt clean shaven policies, particularly those working with asbestos and those in the oil and gas sector. However, some sectors are lagging behind and need some advice on how to reinforce the importance of being clean shaven when using certain types of RPE.

To do this effectively, education is key. By explaining the risks and engaging with workers about the issue, they are much more likely to understand why they need to remove their stubble to stay safe.

In situations where facial hair cannot be avoided, there is RPE available, such as 3M’s Powered and Supplied Air Respirators. The powered air units are loose fitting and do not rely on a tight seal to the wearer’s face.

Fit testing

Research has indicated that 50% of all RPE is not providing the expected level of protection, with one of the main factors being that it simply does not fit.

The performance of tight-fitting respirators relies on achieving a good seal between the face piece of the respirator and the wearer’s face. If the seal is inadequate, contaminated air will travel through leaks in the face seal. Consequently, a poor seal to the face will reduce the level of protection provided to the wearer.

Fit testing is an extremely effective way of establishing whether the equipment is able to seal the wearer’s face effectively. It has been a requirement of COSHH to fit test RPE that relies on a tight-fitting face piece since 2002.

There are two types of fit testing methods:

  • Qualitative for disposable respirators and half masks
  • Quantitative for disposable respirators, half and full face masks

Fit testing can be carried out either by someone in house or by hiring an external company for the task. But one of the most-asked questions at the Safety Dialogue was how to find out if a certain fit tester is competent.

In answer to this, the British Safety Industry Federation, along with the HSE and other industry stakeholders, developed a competency scheme for Fit Test Providers. The Fit2Fit RPE Fit Test Providers Accreditation Scheme is designed to confirm the competency of any person performing face piece fit testing. To find out more about this, visit fit2fit.org

Once a product has been fit tested, it is good practice to carry out repeat fit testing to ensure that the wearer’s face shape has not changed over time in such a way that the RPE no longer provides an adequate fit.

To find out more information on the topics I’ve highlighted or if you have any further general health and safety questions about the workplace, please feel free to give 3M’s H&S helpline a call on 0870 608 0060.