Dust Mask or Disposable Respirator?

Dust Mask or Disposable Respirator?
Employers should fit test a respirator to ensure a worker can maneuver, breath or tolerate wearing a respirator. Also, remember that facial hair is not allowed if it disrupts the seal of a mask.

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Respirators protect workers from inhaling dangerous material that can cause acute or chronic respiratory problems. Acute conditions occur suddenly and usually involve a severe reaction to exposure of dust, chemicals or other substances. In contrast, a chronic condition is persistent or long lasting and can be caused by either a single exposure or continuous exposure to an adverse substance. Employers protect workers from respiratory problems by providing exposure elimination or control mechanisms, such as a respirator or dust mask. 

Dust mask or respirator?

A dust mask is commonly used when cleaning equipment, mowing grass and concrete cutting. Disposable N95 dust respirators are the most widely used dust masks because they provide 95 percent filtration efficiency of particulates. The two-strapped dust masks are tested by NIOSH and OSHA certified. 

OSHA defines a respirator as “a protective facepiece, hood or helmet that is designed to protect the wearer against a variety of harmful airborne agents.” Many types of respirators are hazard specific. 

If a worker is welding, working with fumes or changing chlorine tanks, then the respirator must be tailored for that job. OSHA’s website offers a respiratory protection eTool that provides guidance for the respiratory standards, requirements for a written program, and tools for choosing the right respirator for the task. 

Why are N95 dust masks respirators?

In 2011, OSHA responded to a question regarding N95 masks as respirators, stating that the integral part of the facepiece was “a negative pressure particulate respirator.” It is considered a disposable respirator because it can’t be cleaned or stored properly for reuse. Therefore, it falls under OSHA General Industry Standard Respiratory Protection standards. The respiratory protection standard include four major duties for an employer: 

  • Use engineering controls when possible (a physical device or several to control the hazard);
  • Provide the proper respiratory protection
  • Ensure that the respirator is being used properly
  • Institute a respiratory protection program that meets standards 

Important elements of a respiratory standard

A respiratory standard should include several elements, including a PPE hazard assessment certification. A comprehensive health and safety hazard assessment must identify potential hazards in the workplace and select proper PPE for each hazard. 

A written program eliminates guesswork for operators when determining who needs to wear a respirator, what type of respirator should be used and any another concerns. The program content should include the following: 

  • Selecting the right respirator for the task at hand
  • Training criteria
  • Medical evaluation notification and criteria
  • Fit testing criteria
  • Use of a respirator for emergencies
  • Ensuring adequate air supply, quantity and flow for adequate breathing when using a supplied air respirator
  • Establishing a cleaning and maintenance program for respirators
  • Regular evaluation of the program 

Pre-existing medical conditions can be a concern when it comes to wearing a respirator. For instance, employees with asthma, history of hear attacks or respiratory diseases can have trouble with the devices. In these instances a utility must have a medical professional determine if an operator is qualified to wear a respirator. 

Employers should also fit test a respirator to ensure a worker can maneuver, breath or tolerate wearing a respirator. Also, remember that facial hair is not allowed if it disrupts the seal of a mask. 

Adequate training is critical to the entire program. Operators must understand each element of the respiratory protection program. Training should be conducted initially when a worker is exposed to a hazard, annually and as often as needed. 

Operators who are exposed to fumes, dusts, liquids and gases must be protected from inhaling hazardous materials that can cause acute or chronic damage. Although donning a dust mask might seem like a simple solution, it sometimes can create a new hazard. Therefore, it’s important to complete a hazard assessment to match the right PPR with a specific hazard. If a respirator — even a disposable N95 — is necessary, use these guidelines to protect workers from harm and the utility from liability. 

About the Author

Sheldon Primus is a Class A licensed wastewater operator with more than 18 years of industry experience. He is a Certified Occupational Safety Specialist, authorized OSHA outreach instructor, and holds master’s degrees in public administration and environmental policies. He has held positions as a laboratory operator, chief operator, plant superintendent, safety and compliance officer, and industrial pretreatment coordinator. 

Primus is CEO of Utility Compliance Inc. based in Port St. Lucie, Fla., which helps utilities in industrial pretreatment and risk management program compliance, water and wastewater CEU training, as well as occupational safety program development and OSHA outreach training for general industry and construction. He is also an online adjunct instructor for the Environmental Science Department at Florida Gateway College. He can be reached at sheldon@utilitycompliance.net or 888/398-0120.


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