Using respiratory protection in the workplace can be beneficial, but it can also be a liability. Although providing workers with respiratory protection can reduce workers’ exposure to airborne hazards, death or serious illness can occur when respirators are used improperly. Here are five steps that employers can take to implement a respiratory protection program.

  1. Eliminate the Need for Respiratory Protection
  2. Using respirators is expensive and involves ongoing costs incurred through medical evaluations, annual fit testing and equipment purchases. Respirators can hinder employees’ comfort and productivity, and their use always carries the risk of unexpected overexposures. The first step to ensuring employees’ safety is to eliminate the need for respiratory protection by using less toxic materials or by providing engineering controls, when feasible, to reduce respiratory hazards. Respiratory protection should be used as the last resort in preventing harmful exposures to your employees and not as a substitute for other feasible control measures.

  3. Become Knowledgeable about Respirators
  4. Your respiratory protection program should be implemented by a knowledgeable person. To become proficiently educated about respirators, that person should expect to invest time in studying technical resources or in attending a class. The person you designate to run your program will be called the “respiratory protection program administrator,” and this person will have specific duties and responsibilities that are detailed in the OSHA Respiratory Protection Standard.

  5. Seek Outside Expert Help
  6. Most small companies do not have the in-house resources to make a respiratory hazard evaluation and to select the proper type of respirator. Plan to seek outside expert assistance to measure exposure levels so that the right respirators can be selected and to determine how often cartridges on air-purifying respirators should be changed. Expert assistance is available from safety and health professionals employed by:

    • Workers’ compensation insurance carriers
    • OSHA Consultation Service
    • Private consulting firms
    • Respirator product vendors
    • Industry associations
  7. Implement a Written Respiratory Protection Program
  8. Once you have made a respiratory hazard evaluation and have selected the right respirators, you must develop and implement written worksite-specific procedures for proper respirator use, care and maintenance. You must also train workers in all aspects of the respiratory protection program.

  9. Keep Your Program Effective
  10. A successful respiratory protection program is regularly evaluated to ensure that it is up to date and effective. The frequency with which you must evaluate your respirator program will depend on the complexity and the extent of respiratory hazards in your workplace. You must reevaluate respiratory hazards whenever changes take place in work-area conditions that may change the degree of employees’ exposures (e.g., whenever new substances, processes, procedures or equipment are introduced).

The process of evaluating your respiratory protection program consists of the following steps:

  1. Verify that there are no feasible alternatives to respirators.
  2. Conduct regular workplace evaluations for respiratory hazards.
  3. Obtain employees’ active involvement in reviewing and updating the respirator program.
  4. Make program adjustments, document and train.