In a recent blog HSL’s John Saunders talked about the role of local exhaust ventilation (LEV) in protecting workers’ health. This blog continues the theme of reducing inhalation exposure with the use of respiratory protection equipment (RPE).
RPE isn’t the first choice in the hierarchy of control. In fact it appears well down the ladder of options to consider. But in many workplaces RPE is used as part of a control strategy. With effective use of suitable RPE, adequate control of exposure is possible. But as the recent figures on ill health caused by inhalation exposure published by HSE show, we tend not to be getting respiratory protection right. Why?
After all, there is a wide choice of very good RPE on the market, so where are we going wrong?
Effective use of RPE involves one very complex and much overlooked component – the wearer!
Anyone who has worn a respirator knows that they are not comfy. They increase breathing burden, interfere with communications, impair vision, make you sweat and they can be difficult to fit correctly. It’s no surprise that wearers may choose to not wear respirators for short duration tasks, wear them incorrectly to reduce breathing burden or heat burden or remove them in contaminated areas for communication or clarity of vision. Each of these misuses can lead to increased inhalation exposure, which may eventually cause the wearer to become one of the HSE statistics. With the often long latency of illness related to inhalation exposure, it is difficult get across the health message due to RPE misuse. I once heard long latency health effects described as being a ‘slow accident’ – which I thought was a useful description.
As the demand for respiratory protection in sectors such as healthcare expands, the demand for more wearable respirators grows. The challenge to RPE manufacturers is to design and engineer RPE that is both effective and more wearable.
Several initiatives have provided useful tools to aid the RPE selection – the updated HSE practical guidance on RPE, the Clean Air? –Take Care! campaign and the HSE RPE pocket card, designed specifically for wearers, are excellent resources. And more recently the online RPE Selector Tool is certainly worth a visit.
The legal requirement for fit testing should keep the wearer in focus. With the aid of the Fit2Fit competency scheme, fit testing is helping to ensure that respirators are more suitable for wearers. RPE manufacturers have helped by offering more sizes of masks than ever before. One of the most common reasons why wearers fail a fit test (other than the mask not being suitable for the wearer), is the inability of the wearer to don the mask correctly. This is so often the case with disposable filtering facepieces – which while being the simplest form of RPE – are the hardest to fit correctly. Fit testing provides an ideal opportunity for essential wearer training.
So, if we are to get RPE right we need to make use of the resources available, get wearers fit tested, and ensure they are adequately trained. This way we may then prevent adding further to the HSE statistics.
Mike Clayton is the PPE Technical Team Lead at the Health and Safety Laboratory, the Lead Assessor within the Fit2Fit scheme and is the current President of the International Society for Respiratory Protection.