What You Need to Know About Respiratory Protective Equipment

Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) protects wearers from breathing in harmful substances like dust, mist, gas, or fumes. For it to work effectively, it must suit the wearer, the task, and the environment, reducing exposure to hazards sufficiently to ensure protection.

To help you learn more about how respiratory protective equipment functions and its applications, we’ve provided answers to commonly asked questions. Keep reading to learn more!

When should RPE be used?

wood dust

You need to wear respiratory protection equipment whenever you’re involved in tasks where contaminated air might still be present despite safety measures. Your employer might have identified the presence of respiratory sensitisers through a COSHH Assessment, which include substances like:

  • Isocyanates (found in vehicle spray paint, foam manufacture)
  • Flour, Grain, and Hay
  • Electric Soldering Flux
  • Wood Dusts
  • Laboratory Animals

Respiratory sensitisers are substances that, when inhaled, can lead to irreversible reactions. These reactions might not be immediate but can occur over prolonged or repeated exposures. Even a small amount of the sensitiser after the initial reaction can trigger further reactions.

Following your company’s risk assessment or COSHH assessment by wearing RPE can safeguard you from these substances as well as other hazardous chemicals like asbestos.

How do you choose the right RPE?

It’s important to involve the wearer(s) in selecting respiratory protective equipment because individual factors like face shape, facial hair, and scars can affect its effectiveness. For instance, wearing glasses with side arms can impact the effectiveness of full-face masks.

Other factors to consider include:

1. The task at hand, including the work-rate and wear-time of the RPE. For short-duration tasks, it’s recommended that tight-fitting (unpowered) RPE should only be worn for up to an hour to avoid discomfort.

2. Understanding the substance and its amount. Certain substances have workplace exposure limits, and exceeding these limits may require different RPE to mitigate risks.

3. The form of the substance, whether it’s a vapor, gas, solid, or liquid. Not all types of RPE are suitable for all forms of substances. For example, disposable half mask respirators are only effective against solid or liquid particles.

4. The type of work being done. Regulations may require specific types of respiratory equipment, such as lead workers needing respiratory protection with an assigned protection factor of 20, like an FFP3 half mask with P3 filter.

It’s easy to overlook the compatibility of chosen RPE with other necessary PPE. For example, if you’re required to wear both a full-face mask and a safety helmet, the mask might interfere with the helmet’s fit, rendering it less effective in case of a falling object.

To ensure RPE effectiveness against hazardous substances and compatibility with required PPE, a face fit test should be conducted. Like clothing, RPE isn’t one-size-fits-all. Conducting a face fit test ensures that the selected RPE fits the wearer appropriately.

What types of RPE are there?

man wearing respirator

There are two main types of respiratory equipment:

1. Respirators (Non-powered) – These rely on the wearer to draw air through a filter for purification. They can be disposable or non-disposable. An example of a disposable respirator is one we often saw during the COVID-19 pandemic, categorized into three levels of protection: FFP1 (Factor 4), FFP2 (Factor 10), and FFP3 (Factor 20).

2. Breathing apparatus (Powered) – Here, purified air is supplied to the wearer through a breathing hose from an independent source. There are various types of breathing apparatus, such as standard duration breathing apparatus (SDBA), used by organisations like the London Fire Brigade. These typically have one cylinder stored on the firefighter’s back for mobility.

Both types can feature tight-fitting facepieces, crucial for effectiveness as they rely on a secure seal around the wearer’s face.

On the other hand, loose-fitting facepieces are exclusive to breathing apparatus, as they rely on a continuous supply of air from the cylinder to protect against hazardous substances. Examples include hoods, helmets, or visors.