Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) – Breathing Easy

Some jobs can involve the release of harmful substances into the air. They may produce harmful dust, fibres, vapour, gas or fumes. If workers are not protected from these substances the consequences can be grave. The TUC says ‘far more people die from occupational diseases caused by exposure to substances like asbestos, silica and diesel exhaust than from injuries caused at work’. According to the HSE there were over 2,500 deaths due to mesothelioma in 2016 and estimates there were a similar number of deaths due to asbestos-related lung cancer. Despite measures to control or eliminate hazardous substances at source, employees are often required to wear respirators to filter the air or breathing apparatus to supply clean air. These devices are known collectively as respiratory protective equipment (RPE).

Types of RPE

All types of RPE must be both adequate and suitable. Adequate means the equipment is appropriate for the hazard and reduces exposure to the level required to protect the wearer’s health. Suitable means it must be right for the wearer, the task and environment so that the wearer can work freely and without any risks introduced by using the RPE.

There are two main types of RPE: respirators and breathing apparatus.

Respirators contain filters that remove contaminants from the air. They either rely on the wearer’s breathing to draw air through the filter or, in the case of powered respirators, a motor to pass air through a filter to give a clean supply of air. There are two basic types of filter: particle filters and gas/vapour filters. Each type of filter may be replaceable or built into the respirator.

Breathing apparatus uses a supply of breathing-quality air from a source that is independent of the working environment (e.g. an air cylinder).

Both types of RPE can have loose-fitting or tight-fitting facepieces. Loose-fitting facepieces work if there is enough clean air available to prevent any contaminants leaking in. These include helmets, visors, hoods and suits. Tight-fitting facepieces are usually referred to as masks and work by having a good seal with the wearer’s face.

Legal Requirements

Every employer has a legal responsibility to control substances that are hazardous to health in the workplace, and to prevent and adequately control an employee’s exposure to those substances.

Laws governing the control of harmful substances at work require employers to take all other reasonably practicable measures to prevent or control exposure before considering the use of RPE. Employers deciding whether the use of RPE is necessary should go through a risk assessment process. If a business has fewer than five employees, the employer is not legally required to record the risk assessment.

Situations that may need the use of RPE include:

  • during short-term or infrequent exposure (for example during maintenance work) where other controls are not reasonably practicable
  • where the risk of inhalation of harmful substances remains even after other reasonable controls are in place
  • while other control measures are being set up
  • for emergency work or during a temporary failure of controls where alternative remedial action is not reasonably practicable
  • during an emergency escape from an area when hazardous substances are suddenly released
  • during an emergency rescue.

Employers should make sure RPE used by their workers is of the right size and can correctly fit the wearer. The equipment must also be CE-marked, or of a standard approved by HSE. A CE-mark shows the equipment has met the minimum legal requirements for its design.

Any RPE used should be suitable for the intended use, and it should be correctly stored, cleaned and checked regularly to ensure its effectiveness. Everyone involved in the selection, use, storage and maintenance of RPE should undergo proper training, and there should be a record of the training they have received. There should also be a record of the regular equipment checks and any repairs made to the equipment. These records should be stored for at least five years.

After use, it may be necessary to regard and treat any contaminated RPE or any materials used to clean or disinfect RPE as hazardous waste.

Selecting The Right RPE

Employers are responsible for managing RPE selection and use or can delegate that responsibility to a trained person.

When selecting the correct type of RPE to protect a worker, there are four factors to consider. These are:

  • the hazardous substance in use and how much of it is in the air
  • the form of the substance (e.g. particles or vapour)
  • the type of work to be done, and
  • any requirements specific to the worker.

By law, any product classed as ‘dangerous for supply’ must come with a safety data sheet provided by the supplier. The data sheet should include information on forms of the substances contained in the product and the type of RPE necessary for its use.

Several things determine the amount of protection given by an RPE. One of these is known as the protection factor. The protection factor is the ratio of hazardous substance outside the RPE to the amount inside the RPE. Each type of RPE has an assigned protection factor (APF). The APF is a number that expresses how much protection the RPE is capable of providing. Any RPE used in a work area must have an APF above the protection factor for the area. There may also be advice on the required APF in safety data sheets and COSHH documentation, depending on the substances in use.

The type of work to be carried out will affect how long tasks will take and how long protective equipment is worn. Different types of RPE have different continuous wear times. Exceeding these times means the RPE can become uncomfortable to wear, making it more likely that workers will be tempted to loosen or even remove their mask. Therefore it is essential to consider the nature of the work and choose RPE accordingly.

When selecting RPE, there are several worker-related factors to consider. Do they wear spectacles or contact lenses? Do they have skin allergies? If they have facial hair or other features, it could prevent a proper seal between the wearer’s face and the RPE. When using RPE with a mask, a face fit test should be carried out to ensure the equipment can protect the wearer. Ideally, a worker should have several options for adequate and suitable RPE so they can choose the one they find most comfortable.

For further guidance, the HSE provides information to help employers select and manage respiratory protective equipment.

Inhaling hazardous substances at work may put employees’ health at risk and can cause a range of respiratory diseases and conditions. The use of respirators or breathing apparatus is often a vital step in preventing severe illness or even death.

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