RPE is personal protective equipment designed to protect the wearer from inhaling potentially hazardous substances present in workplace air.
We’ve consulted some expert sources to compile a list of dos and don’ts when selecting and specifying RPE so that you can breathe easy.
Before purchasing or issuing any RPE, employers should assess the risks posed by exposure to hazardous substances and then identify and implement any control measures. Common respiratory hazards for which RPE are required include: vapours generated by petrol, solvents, thinners, paints and varnishes, gases such as chlorine, ammonia and carbon dioxide, fumes arising from soldering and welding, dust such as cement and silica dust, fibres like asbestos and glass wool, paint spray and battery acid mist, and bacteria, viruses and parasites.
RPE is a last resort and should only be employed where there are risks to health & safety that can’t be controlled by other means. As a general rule, RPE should only be used as an interim or emergency measure. For example, if exposure is infrequent or short-term, as additional protection in case existing controls fail, and in situations where people are still at risk of breathing in contaminated air despite other controls such as local exhaust ventilation.
Broadly speaking, there are two categories of RPE: respirators and breathing apparatus (BA).
Respirators use filters to remove contaminants in the air before the wearer inhales it. Breathing apparatus provides the wearer with an independent, uncontaminated air supply such as an air cylinder, making it the best choice for low-oxygen or toxic environments.
For each category, there are at least five additional sub-types. Disposable half masks, half masks without inhalation valves, reusable half masks, full face masks, powered respirators with helmets and hoods, and power-assisted respirators with full face or half masks are the most common types of RPE used by industry. The online RPE selector tool developed by HSE, Health Scotland and Healthy Working Lives is helpful here. It guides employers through a series of questions about the job, substance and wearer, and takes about five minutes to complete.
Respirators must be fitted with the correct filter for the application. There are three filter types: particle filters, gas/vapour filters and combined filters.
Particle filters can be used to trap both solid particles and liquid mists and droplets. They are marked with a ‘P’ sign and a filtration efficiency number 1, 2 or 3, with 3 being the highest. Asbestos, for example, is a particle and a known carcinogen and therefore requires a P3 particle filter.
Gas/vapour filters are colour coded and marked with a letter to indicate what substance they can be used against, i.e. K for ammonia, B for inorganic gases and their vapours. There is also a number 1, 2 or 3 to indicate capacity, with 3 being the highest.
Combined filters are available for situations where protection is needed against both particles and gas/vapour.
Never use particles only filters against gas/vapour, or gas/vapour only filters against particulates.
It is essential with face masks as these rely on having an airtight seal with the wearer’s face. The size and shape of the mask should be matched to the wearer’s facial contours to ensure a good seal.
Fit tests involve using a test agent to determine the extent of face-seal leakage while the respirator is being worn under test conditions and must be carried out by a competent person.
The British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF) has established an accreditation system to make it easier for employers to confirm the competency of individuals performing facepiece fit testing.
Comfort is a factor that is often forgotten when choosing RPE but is very important, as discomfort can lead to non-compliance. Take into account the weight of the equipment, wear time and working conditions.
Continuous wear-time for tight-fitting face masks should be less than an hour, after which the wearer should take a break. Otherwise, they may be tempted to loosen or remove the mask because it is uncomfortable. In situations where RPE needs to be worn continuously for long periods, powered respirators or airline BA, such as a loose-fitting facepiece in the form of a hood or helmet, help minimise discomfort.
In hot and humid conditions, wearing RPE increases heat stress and sweating. Fan-assisted or compressed air-supplied BA helps to minimise discomfort. Proprietary cooling devices are also available from RPE manufacturers. In cold environments, airflow associated with fan-assisted or compressed air-supplied BA can cause chilling effects. Proprietary heating devices are available from RPE manufacturers.
This point might seem obvious, but it is astounding how often workers with facial hair are given masks and told to wear them. Even the smallest amount of facial hair can affect seal quality, so users of close-fitting masks should always be clean-shaven. If this is not possible, loose-fitting facepieces such as hoods, helmets or visors are a safer alternative. The same applies to side-arm spectacles, which interfere with the seal on a full face mask.
The Personal Protective Equipment Regulations 1992 stipulate that RPE must be CE-marked. This is to ensure the equipment meets specific standards in its design and manufacture. This marking appears as the letters ‘CE’ and a four-digit code that identifies the body responsible for checking manufacturing quality.
If other forms of PPE – such as helmets and eye protection – are required alongside RPE, employers are required by law to ensure they work together. Incompatible RPE and PPE may result in a reduced level of protection. For instance, a disposable particulate respirator that relies on the product ability to achieve an adequate seal to the wearer’s face may be rendered ineffective if a pair of safety goggles causes the seal to lift away from the nose and cheekbones.
The best way of avoiding compatibility issues is for respirator wearers to wear other PPE when undergoing a fit test. If it proves problematic, another option could be an integrated PPE/RPE system such as a powered air respirator with in-built hearing, head and eye protection.
NDMs (Nuisance Dust Masks) are designed to catch large particles, not those reaching your lungs. They are not CE-marked and are not RPE. They should not be used for compliance with the law. They do not protect against dust from grain or sawdust (this will go straight through the mask), nor do they shield against spray paints or welding fumes. Despite this, the HSE warns that some employers are using nuisance dust masks as cheap alternatives to RPE.