Breathe Easy: Developing a respirator program

March 1, 2002
Breathe Easy Developing a respirator programBy Colleen Malloy

Even breathing can be dangerous when you're working in the hangar. Your health depends on a properly chosen and maintained respirator to filter out potentially deadly gases, particles, and fumes. By developing a respirator program in your workplace you can be sure that you will continue to breathe easy.

OSHA regulatory background

Under OSHA's Respiratory Protection Standard 29 CFR 1910.134, employers are required to provide respirators when engineering controls such as ventilation or enclosures are unable to protect employees from airborne contaminants. In addition, employers must develop a written respirator program and update it on a periodic basis to reflect the changing workplace. An administrator must oversee the respirator program to ensure that all employees are properly trained on respirator use and maintenance. Employers are required to provide respirators, related training, and medical examinations at no cost to the employee. OSHA offers a Small Entity Compliance Guide that outlines a sample program, which is available through its web site at

Getting started

Development and maintenance of a respirator program includes the following basic steps:

  1. Identification of respiratory hazards
  2. Medical evaluation
  3. Fit testing
  4. Respirator selection
  5. Training
  6. Maintenance
  7. Program evaluation and record keeping

Respiratory hazards

Before you can select a respirator it is important to properly identify and evaluate respiratory hazards.

Respiratory hazards come in many different forms including dusts, fibers, fumes, mists, gases, vapors, and biological hazards. By properly identifying the hazards present in your workplace you can choose the respirator that best suits your needs. It is important to note that each task you perform may subject you to different sets of respiratory hazards. Be sure to take all exposure to respiratory hazards into consideration when planning a respirator program, including emergency situations.

Medical evaluation

Not everyone is well suited for respirator use; people with a history of medical problems may find it difficult to use a respirator. It is important that a physician or other qualified medical expert perform a medical evaluation based on the OSHA Respiratory Medical Evaluation Questionnaire found in Appendix C of the Respiratory Protection Standard. Factors OSHA recommends a medical professional take into consideration include:

  • The type and weight of the respirator to be used by the employee
  • The duration and frequency of respirator use (including use for rescue and escape)
  • The expected physical work effort
  • Additional protective clothing and equipment to be worn
  • Temperature and humidity extremes that may be encountered

Yearly medical evaluations are not required, but any employee whose health appears to be affected by respirator use should be provided with a follow-up medical evaluation.

Fit testing

For a respirator to work properly it must be fit to the individual who will be using it. It is important for employers to offer many different respirator options. Respirator manufacturers offer a wide range of sizes and each brand of respirator will fit differently so that people with faces of varying sizes and shapes will be able to find a respirator that fits comfortably. For respirator users allergic to latex, many manufacturers offer silicone-based models. People with facial hair or who wear glasses must also take those factors into consideration when choosing a respirator.

Fit testing is required before initial use of a respirator, when any changes are made in the respirator being used, if the user undergoes any major physical changes (substantial weight loss, etc.), and on an annual basis. There are two types of fit testing, qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative fit testing exposes the user to a respiratory hazard and measures physical reactions while quantitative fit testing takes a reading of the actual amount of the hazard that penetrates the mask. Both types of fit testing conform to OSHA standards. Both qualitative and quantitative fit testing equipment are available from most resiprator manufacturers.

Selecting a respirator

Respirators range from simple dust masks to fully self-contained breathing apparatus. Some respirators can be used to protect against different hazards using different types of filters. It is important to take all factors of the environment and your own individual needs into consideration when selecting a respirator.

OSHA requires that respirators be approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to ensure that all respirators on the market remain of the highest quality. A searchable database of all NIOSH approved respirators is available at their website at

As I have mentioned, there is a full range of respirators available to meet the varying needs of every workplace, ranging from tight-fitting coverings including quarter masks, half masks, and full-face pieces to loose-fitting coverings including hoods, helmets, and full body suits, but all respirators can be divided into two basic categories: air-purifying respirators and atmosphere supplying respirators.

Air-purifying respirators use filters to purify the atmosphere. Some air-purifying respirators are disposable while others have replaceable filters. All air-purifying respirators can be divided into three categories: particle respirators, combination respirators, and gas and vapor respirators. Particle respirators, including the common dust mask, only filter out particles in the atmosphere. They do not protect against gases and vapors. Combination respirators filter out both particles and gases. Gas and vapor respirators are designed to filter out only specific gases and vapors, so it is important that all respiratory hazards have been properly identified before using a gas and vapor respirator.

Atmosphere supplying respirators operate on their own independent air supply. These too can be divided into three basic categories: air-supplied respirators, combination respirators, and self-contained breathing apparatus. Air-supplied respirators provide the user with a stream of clean air from a hose connected to a stationary air supply, combination respirators also connect to a stationary air supply and supply a self-contained air supply in case the primary supply should fail, and finally self-contained breathing apparatus consist of a wearable self-contained clean air supply.

A respirator should be chosen for both safety and comfort. There are many manufacturers and models and it is important to find the respirator that will let you perform your job with the least distraction. Taking factors like communication and portability into consideration when choosing a respirator will help you decide which model is right for you.

Training and maintenance

Training is key to any respirator program. Training on proper use and maintenance should be given to all respirator users by the program administrator, and OSHA provides a 66-slide PowerPoint presentation at that outlines the major points of the respiratory standard.

A major portion of the training should be devoted to maintenance. Each model of respirator has its own unique maintenance needs.

Part of the written respiratory program should include a change-out schedule for respirators that require filters, cartridges, or canisters. Many factors affect the life of the filters including environmental conditions, breathing rate, filtering capacity, and contaminants present in the air. To ensure that respirators are kept in the best condition possible it may be a good idea to follow the manufacturer's recommendations for filter change-out.

Regularly cleaning your respirator will lengthen its life and will help keep it in good working order. Respirators used by more than one person should be cleaned after each use. To clean your respirator remove the filter, then disassemble the facepieces and wash them in warm water with mild detergent. A bristle brush can be used to help loosen dirt and contaminants. Never use a wire brush. Rinse the cleaned components under warm running water and if the detergent does not include a disinfectant, soak the respirator components in a hypochlorite solution made from a combination of 1 mililiter of household bleach and 1 liter of 110 degree F water. Once disinfected, dry the pieces with a clean, lint-free cloth and reassemble the respirator. Test the respirator to ensure that it is working properly.

Respirators should be stored in a clean, dry place protected against dust, sunlight, moisture, and other contaminants. Plastic bins are an ideal storage location for respirators. Hanging respirators from pegs may seem convenient, but will drastically shorten their lives by distorting their shape and leaving them exposed to contaminants. Plastic bags also aren't the best storage option, but if used it is important to be sure that the respirator is completely dry before placing it in a bag.

Evaluation and record keeping

The program administrator is responsible for making continual evaluations of the respirator program. The administrator should ask employees about the fit, selection, use, and maintenance of respirators as well as their overall satisfaction of the program.

It is also important that the program administrator keep detailed records of medical evaluations, fit tests, and a copy of the current written respirator program on hand so that your shop can continue to breathe easy should OSHA come to call.

Additional Resources. . .

National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH)
Hubert H. Humphery Bldg.
200 Independence Ave. S.W.
Room 715H
Washington D.C., 20201
(800) 35-NIOSH

Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA)
200 Constitution Ave. N. W.
Washington D.C., 20210
(800) 321-OSHA