FAQs - Respiratory Protection
In the workplace, the primary route of exposure to hazardous substances is through inhalation. Some occupational activities or environments can release hazardous materials into the air. When airborne contaminants cannot be adequately controlled by other means, respiratory protection is called for.
Inhalation or respiratory hazards include dusts, fumes, mists; gases and vapors; and oxygen deficient atmospheres. Knowing the characteristics of each hazard helps to understand why respiratory protection is so important.
Dusts, Fumes, and Mists -
Dusts, mists and fumes are tiny particles that float in the air. Dusts are formed when solid materials are broken down in activities such as sanding, grinding, or crushing. Fumes occur when metal is melted, vaporized, then quickly cooled, creating very fine particles that drift in the air. Welding and furnace work are likely to produce fumes. Mists are tiny liquid droplets usually created by spraying, mixing, or cleaning activities. Mists may be a combination of several hazardous ingredients.
Gases and Vapors -
Gases and vapors are invisible contaminants mixed in the air. Gases are substances that become airborne at room temperature. Chemical processes and high-heat operations often release gases. They drift quickly and undetected from their source. Vapors are formed when liquids or solids evaporate, typically occurring with solvents, paints, or refining activities.
Oxygen Deficiency -
Oxygen deficiency is a reduction in the amount of oxygen in the air. Oxygen deficiency can be caused by chemical reactions, fire, or displacement by other gases. In confined spaces where ventilation is very limited or non-existent, aerobic bacterial growth and oxidation of rusting metals can also cause an oxygen deficient atmosphere. Oxygen comprises only a small percentage, about 21%, of the air we breathe. Yet when levels of oxygen fall below 19.5% (minimal acceptable level), life-threatening health problems begin to occur very quickly. Oxygen deficiency is a very serious situation that can cause loss of consciousness or death in minutes.
Only those persons who have been pre-approved for respirator use by their supervisor, principle investigator, or DEHS; medically approved; fit-tested; and trained are authorized to utilize such equipment. Respiratory protection equipment is required:
- For activities that cannot be safely controlled by engineering methods,
- When airborne contaminants could exceed acceptable limits,
- When the working atmosphere is or may be oxygen deficient (confined spaces such as tanks, boilers, vaults, crawl spaces, and storm drains, for example)
- During emergencies when loss of life or serious property loss or damage may occur.
The first step in obtaining a respirator when an over-exposure to an airborne contaminant is suspected is to request a hazard assessment. Contact your supervisor or the person coordinating respiratory protection for your department (the Responsible Supervisor). That person can let you know if a hazard assessment of your work area or procedure has already been conducted. If a hazard assessment has not been conducted, the responsible supervisor can request one from the Department of Environmental Health and Safety (852-6670). If the hazard assessment determines that a respirator is indicated, you must obtain a Medical Qualification for Respirator Use (Appendix C), attend a respirator training session, and be fitted to a specific size, make and model of respirator. It is only after all these qualifications have been met that you will be issued a new or cleaned and reconditioned respirator.
I can easily pick up a respirator at the hardware store. So why is getting a respirator at UofL so complicated?
Selecting the most appropriate respirator can be a complicated procedure. It requires a thorough evaluation of the hazards and processes involved, suitability of alternate materials or processes, knowledge of chemical properties, medical clearance, and a full understanding of regulatory mandates. In most cases, other methods of hazard control are not only more appropriate but also more effective than using respirators. In fact, if the wrong type of respirator is used a person can actually be placed at greater risk than if no respiratory protection were not used at all. Respirators also place a large degree of stress on the body, particularly on the cardio-pulmonary system. Persons with certain medical conditions may not be able to use some types of respirators. This is why it is so important to be sure that all the components of the Respiratory Protection Program are met.
If, after all other methods of hazard reduction are exhausted, respiratory protection is still called for DEHS can assist you in choosing the type of respirator that will offer the best protection, provide required training, fit testing, and ensure that the University is in full compliance with applicable regulations.
Employees, from time-to-time, express a desire to wear respirators during operations that do not require respiratory protection. As a general policy, UofL will review each of these requests on a case-by-case basis. As long as the use of respiratory protection in a specific case will not jeopardize the health or safety of the worker, UofL may allow the voluntary use of respirators. Voluntary respirator use is subject to certain provisions of the Respiratory Protection Program, including Information for Employees Using Respirators When Not Required Under the Standard (Appendix D), medical evaluation, and cleaning, storage and maintenance requirements. Those who wish to use dust masks (filtering facepieces), are also subject to some of these provisions.
Costs for respirator procurement, maintenance, and repair are borne by individual departments, as is the cost for obtaining a Medical Qualification for Respirator Use. Training and fit testing is a free service provided by the Department of Environmental Health and Safety. Employees are not responsible for any fees associated with compliance with the Respiratory Protection Program.
In certain situations, UofL may provide respirators free of charge even though the hazard assessment does not indicate that one is needed. In situations where UofL allocates respirators for voluntary use or where UofL requires the use of a respirator in a non-hazardous situation, the costs of compliance will be covered.