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Administration: Office of Environmental Health & Safety

Respiratory Protection

To control any hazard in the workplace, the hierarchy of controls is as follows:

  • Engineering controls (capture/control hazards at their source);
  • Administrative controls (training, work practice controls, chemical substitution);
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE; protective clothing, respirators and other equipment that is worn by the worker).

Engineering controls are always the first line of defense against exposure to hazardous materials in the workplace. Administrative controls are used in conjunction with engineering controls; together, engineering and administrative controls may obviate the need for worker PPE – which are considered the last line of defense against exposure to hazardous materials. At most, PPE must be considered only as a supplement to other types of controls.

Inhalation is the most important route of exposure for hazardous materials. When engineering and administrative controls are not feasible or sufficient to reduce worker exposure to hazardous materials, respiratory protection may be required. Respirator use is widespread in the workplace (estimated 5 million workers). The use of respirators must be justified and only after a thorough review of the hazards of a specific task. Respirator use is highly regulated because incorrect selection and use can result in serious injury, illness or death.

Although specific design and materials have evolved since earliest recorded use, respirators' performance is still based on one of two basic principles: removing contaminants from the air before they are inhaled (air purifying), or providing an independent source of respirable air (atmosphere supplying). Atmosphere supplying respirators are reserved almost exclusively for emergency response operations.

Before respirators can be used in the workplace, a full respiratory protection program must be implemented. The respiratory protection program covers the following elements:

  • Procedures for selecting respirators for use in the workplace; Proper respirator selection involves choosing a device that fully protects workers from respiratory hazards to which they may be exposed and permits workers to perform the job with the least amount of physical burden. All respirators must be NIOSH certified.
  • Medical evaluations of employees required to use respirators.
  • Fit testing procedures for tight-fitting respirators; respirators must fit properly to provide protection.
  • Use of respirators in routine and reasonably foreseeable emergency situations.
  • Procedures and schedules for cleaning, disinfecting, storing, inspecting, repairing, and otherwise maintaining respirators.
  • Procedures to ensure adequate air quality, quantity and flow of breathing air for atmosphere-supplying respirators.
  • Training of employees in the respiratory hazards to which they are potentially exposed.
  • Training of employees in the proper use of respirators, including putting on and removing them, any limitations on their use, and maintenance procedures.
  • Procedures for regularly evaluating the effectiveness of the program.

Respirators may also be used on a voluntary basis in the workplace. Voluntary use is only permitted when it has been determined by your supervisor and EH&S director that there is no airborne hazard that would require the use of a respirator.

All respiratory protection use must be carefully considered by the worker, your supervisor and the EH&S director. Additional engineering controls or work practice controls may be implemented instead to reduce/eliminate exposure instead. However, if respiratory protection is required for the task, or if the worker would be more comfortable voluntarily using a respirator in a nonhazardous situation (e.g. dusty environment), please contact your supervisor or EH&S (x8988, or email).