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Respirator fit testing is important for workers

04 November 2022

RESPIRATOR FIT testing isn’t just about HSE compliance—it’s an essential step in keeping your employees safe and healthy. Here’s a look at the latest tools and processes to increase your company’s fit testing efficiencies as part of an overall written respiratory protection programme.

With the increased awareness and importance of respiratory protection, elevated with the seriousness of health risks like COVID-19, choosing the right respirator quickly is more important than ever. 

A Respiratory Protective Device (RPD) is an essential piece of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to protect workers from harmful particulates, vapours, gases, and other hazards that HSE says can lead to pulmonary injuries and illnesses like lung diseases, and even death. But a respirator, no matter how well made, is only as good as how it fits. Gaps or leaks between the face and the sealing surface of the respirator allow harmful particles to be inhaled by the worker that can negate the important role of even the most highly engineered respirator. 

What is fit testing?

The amount of protection a respirator will provide is heavily dependent on how well it fits. Every person’s face is different, and therefore every wearer needs to undergo an individual fit test for the specific respirator they use on the job. Fit testing acts like the final exam in a respiratory protection programme, which also includes a comprehensive respirator training programme, medical evaluation, and selection, use, and limitations of selected respiratory protective devices. 

A fit test verifies the seal between the respirator and the wearer’s face, identifying gaps or leaks that put workers at risk. In the end, fit testing ensures that workers can achieve the required fit and level of protection for the respirator type they are issued for the job they are performing. 

HSE requires respirator fit testing, but the process is about more than compliance or “checking the box” as quickly as possible. It’s about safety. Staff working in dangerous environments deserve the very best protection from their respirator. 

Just as important is the training element: Fit testing ensures the wearer knows how to properly don and doff the respirator and how to adjust it to achieve a proper fit, as well as ensuring the respirator is comfortable to wear. 

New employees should be fit tested as part of their onboarding process before they begin working in hazardous conditions requiring the use of respiratory protection. After that, HSE requires that a fit test be completed annually for anyone required to continue to wear a tight-fitting respirator for their job per their company’s written respiratory protection program. 

In addition, workers should re-test if there is a change in the type of respirator used or if the wearer experiences substantial changes to their facial features, such as weight loss/gain or cosmetic surgery. 

How is fit testing conducted?

There are two primary ways to conduct fit testing: qualitative (QLFT) and quantitative (QNFT).

Qualitative fit testing uses a challenge agent, such as Saccharin Solution Aerosol (sweet tasting), Bitrex Solution Aerosol (bitter tasting), and the wearer’s sense of taste to achieve a subjective pass or fail assessment of whether the respirator fits or not. 

Quantitative fit testing directly measures respirator leakage by counting ambient particles both outside and inside of the respirator to get a measurement of the respirator’s fit. Quantitative testing provides a numerical/objective measurement of respirator fit.

The PortaCount Respirator Fit Tester is one available method for quantitative measurements. The instrument measures the concentration of ambient particles outside the respirator and the concentration of ambient particles inside of the respirator. Those two measurements result in a ratio called a “fit factor.” 

The test takes measurements while the person being fit tested performs a range of movements outlined by HSE INDG479 to reflect real-world use (including bending over, moving the head from side to side, moving the head up and down, talking and deep breathing) and confirms that the respirator can still provide the appropriate level of protection.

The PortaCount is controlled by FitPro Ultra Fit Test Software, which guides the fit test process while automatically recording results to a database to document your program’s compliance. The intuitive software works on touchscreen tablets and PC laptops.

According to TSI, a quantitative tool such as the PortaCount Respirator Fit Tester increases the efficiency of the testing process—allowing for more tests to be completed in less time, freeing test administrators to multi-task because the instrument is doing the work, and increasing your percentage of passed fit tests with better staff training and the early identification of respirators that fit poorly.

The company says, "Real-time measurements not only allow you to quickly find the correct size of mask, but also provide staff with a greater understanding of how and when their respirator best protects them to achieve the best respirator fit possible.

"Ultimately, these efficiencies are helping to increase the volume of fit testing and the ability of companies to manage the data and their respirator programs efficiently."

Wider adoption and acceptance of fit testing is one more crucial step in helping companies achieve compliance and, most importantly, helping to keep employees safe and healthy on the job.

For more information, visit www.tsi.com