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Clean, breathable air is the single most important factor in the continued existence of life on earth. We can’t see it, smell it, hear it, taste it, or touch it but without it none of us would be here. You would think that something so crucial would be treated with the utmost seriousness but, instead, most of us take it completely for granted.
The fact is that air quality in general – especially in the developed world – is getting steadily worse. Hardly a day goes by – especially in the warmer summer months – without headlines proclaiming dangerously high levels of pollutants, or a surge in cases of respiratory ailments. We’re all familiar with those periodic images of citizens in places like China going about their daily lives wearing facemasks to protect them from all-enveloping smog caused – largely – by rapid industrialisation and the huge number of vehicles on the roads.
We will – hopefully – never get to a stage where wearing respiratory protection masks is a permanent necessity of everyday life, but it certainly is a requirement in many work environments. However, even in the workplace, where there are positive duties on employers to protect their staff from risks to their health, airborne contaminants and the damage they can cause are often not dealt with as effectively as they should be.
Respiratory risks are particularly prevalent in the construction industry. One of the main hazards here is silica dust – present in many building materials, such as concrete, mortar and sandstone. Respirable crystalline silica particles are produced during various work tasks in construction, including sandblasting, brick-cutting, tunnelling and stone-working. If the particles are inhaled, they can cause silicosis – a long-latency lung disease from which the number of deaths in the UK is on the increase.
Other harmful airborne contaminants commonly present during construction activities include wood dust – hardwoods and MDF can give rise to particularly toxic dust – and lower-toxicity dusts created when working on the likes of gypsum, limestone and marble.
As well as silicosis, dust-related diseases that can affect workers who are exposed over time and not properly protected include lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma. While the onset of some of these can be swift, most take time to develop, as dust builds up in the respiratory system and starts to cause harm. The damage done can be life-changing, leading to disability and premature death.
Responsible employers will install the necessary protective equipment according to the hazards in their workplace and the hierarchy of controls, but a simple ‘pay up, then pass on’ approach is not sufficient. Particularly when it comes to personal respiratory protection equipment, selection is just the first step. The employer must also ensure that the RPE is adequate to protect against the contaminant in question, suitable for the wearer, and that it reduces exposure to as low as reasonably practicable.
One size doesn’t fit all
It may be a cliché but, like most clichés, that’s because it’s true: one size does not fit all. Tight-fitting RPE – full face-masks half-masks, and filtering face-pieces (disposable masks) – must be exactly that: tight to the face and properly fitted. The obvious consequence of any gaps or leaks is ingress of contaminants, rendering the protection useless and putting the wearer at risk of respiratory harm.
By far the most effective and reliable way to ensure the fit is tight and suitable for the wearer is to carry out fit-testing as part of the selection process. A face-fit test is used to determine whether or not a negative-pressure respiratory mask fits the wearer properly. Broadly, there are two types of fit-test method available: a subjective qualitative test, whereby the subject is relied upon to detect the fit, and a quantitative test, during which numerical values of fit are determined. The former is usually a taste test, while the latter requires the subject to be connected to some form of particle-counting device.
Disposable filtering masks, or reusable half-masks are the most commonly used respiratory protection and, for these, the HSE has stated a qualitative test is an acceptable method of face-fit testing. The equipment is usually significantly more cost-effective and easily available than that required for quantitative testing, which requires a specific machine and takes more time.
In 2009, the Health and Safety Executive, along with the British Safety Industry Federation and other industry stakeholders, developed an accreditation scheme – Fit 2 Fit – for fit-test providers. Under the scheme, responsible employers can determine the competency of those performing face-fit testing.
Although it is not a legal requirement, fit-testing of tight-fitting face-pieces during initial selection is recommended in the Approved Codes of Practice to the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002, the Control of Lead at Work Regulations 2002 and the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006. And bear in mind that the HSE will consider taking enforcement action where RPE is considered to be unsuitable, and this includes where those wearing tight-fitting face-pieces have not undergone and passed an appropriate fit test.
Failure to supply fit-test results can also be grounds for action. Employers must provide documented evidence of the suitability of the RPE to be used in their workplaces. Such evidence will include fit-test reports for face-pieces with tight-fitting face seals (see sample form), and records for all employees who wear such RPE must be available for inspection on request.
While fit-testing is the recommended and most reliable way to ensure those working in contaminated atmospheres are fully protected, it is a substantial undertaking – particularly for employers of large workforces. If you consider that a standard qualitative test takes around 35 minutes to complete – 10 minutes to explain to the subject, 15 minutes to carry it out and up to 10 minutes for admin – that adds up to a significant amount of time when there are a lot of wearers to test. And that’s assuming that the individual achieves a seal on the mask first time; for each instance in which the mask doesn’t fit, the whole test needs to be repeated. With disposable masks, repeat tests are frequently required.
A study published earlier this year by the HSE, in which 25 volunteers wearing tight-fitting FFP3 disposable masks underwent four fit tests, found that while 81 per cent of the tests were successful, i.e. the fit was declared ‘good’, 58 per cent of the subsequent fit-test runs returned a fail in all fit-test methods. According to the study results, on average, 41 per cent of subjects will require a re-test, thus adding to the overall time taken to complete the fit-test exercise.
This is the first in a two-part series by Vincent Jenkins. The next article will look at a day in the life of a fit-tester.
Vincent Jenkins is the key account manager for JSP Ltd.