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3M uses a 4-step process to help customers select the appropriate respiratory protective equipment:

Step 1 – Identify the hazards

During a normal working day, many employees are exposed to hazards while at work.

  • Dusts, fibres and mists – can cause irritation of the nose, throat and upper airways.  Fine particulates can penetrate into the lungs and cause tissue damage.  Adverse health effects can include difficulty in breathing, asthma, nasal cancer (from hardwoods), silicosis and abesestosis.
  • Gases and vapours – such as organic vapours, once inhaled, can be absorbed into the bloodstream and can cause irreparable damage to the liver, kidneys and brain.
  • Welding/metal fume – very fine particles which are potentially lung damaging and can cause adverse health effects such as metal fume fever.

Step 2 - Assess the level of risk, determine the limit for the substance(s) the person is exposed to (Occupational Exposure Limit – OEL).

If the OEL is exceeded or the risk assessment dictates it, control measures should be considered.  Assuming all other control measures have been considered first, move to step 3.

Step 3 – Select Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) product.

RPE comes in a wide variety of types, each suitable for a particular range of applications. Although the type of application of certain RPE may overlap, no respirator is ideal for all applications and care should be taken to understand the limitations of any respirator before selection.

It is important to establish the level of respiratory protection required to ensure that exposure will be reduced to the levels dictated in a companies risk assessment which should certainly be below the Occupational Exposure Limits. It therefore may be necessary to undertake personal monitoring to determine personal exposure. Once the level of respiratory protection is determined, the respirator selected should be suited to each wearer as all employees are different.

The following characteristics should be considered:

  • face size, shape and facial characteristics, e.g. facial hairs, spectacles
  • work rate & work environment
  • wear time & non-wear time
  • medical fitness of workers
  • visibility
  • communication
  • mobility
  • sweating and heat exhaustion
  • contamination
  • compatibility with other forms of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), e.g. goggles, head protection

Step 4 – Train the wearers in the use and care of the respirator

Once the respirator has been correctly selected for the hazard(s), the application and the individual wearer, it is essential, and a legal requirement, to train the wearer in the correct fitting, use, maintenance and care of the respirator. They should understand the risks to health posed by airborne hazardous substances, the reasons for wearing the PPE (and consequences if they don’t) and why smoking, drinking and eating is forbidden wherever hazardous substances are present. It is also important to demonstrate the fitting of the respirator and conduct a face fit check and face fit test if the user is to gain maximum benefit.

Training officers should also provide information on the limitations of the respirators, explain how and when filters should be changed and lay down acceptable storage procedures. By following a suitable RPE Programme as outlined above, following the manufacturers’ advice and by utilising helplines, safety officers can be sure of obtaining the most appropriate cost-effective PPE for the workers. What’s more, they can be sure that they are not only helping to protect their workers from future health effects – but are protecting themselves from future insurance/legal claims.