Safety should always be in the forefront of your thoughts when working with chemicals. We expose our bodies to chemicals and other risk factors throughout the day. It is important that we take the proper precautions to keep ourselves safe and healthy.
Many people accept the value and importance of wearing eye protection, hard hats, safety boots even gloves but fail to recognize the importance of wearing respiratory protection. What you may not realize is the dangers that may be airborne and potentially harmful in the workplace. Many cannot be seen or tasted but their effects can be very damaging and not felt until years later.
Ultimately, it is the employer’s responsibility to see that respiratory protection, fit testing and training needed is properly in place. However only you can be responsible for wearing it. You may have many reasons for not wearing a respirator, but there is no excuse for not wearing one. Let’s identify some of the airborne hazards that we need to protect ourselves from.
Dust: These particles float in the air often created by sanding, cutting, grinding or sweeping.
Mists: This can be tiny droplets of atomized materials we are spraying.
Vapors: Formed when solids or liquids evaporate, such as solvents.
Gases: This can be substances that are airborne at room temperature and are often invisible, like carbon monoxide, methane and Freon. Gases are similar to ambient air and can spread and diffuse freely throughout an area.
Fumes: Fine particles generally created when metal is heated to a boiling point and then cooled quickly.
There is no “all-purpose” respirator to help protect you against all types of hazards or concentrations. Knowing the airborne contaminants in your shop will help you choose the right line of defense. There are two general types of respirators, those that filter contaminate in the air and atmosphere-supplying respirators that provide fresh air from an uncontaminated source. Choosing the type depends on the contaminants that exist, from that you can determine what type of filter and/or charcoal cartridges are appropriate.
Let’s first look at particulate respirators; they are typically maintenance free, many times are a soft cotton, paper, patented microfiber filtering material which have many advantages such as lightweight, comfortable, adjustable straps and are relatively inexpensive. We wear them when sanding, sweeping or cutting materials. The style of the nose clip, whether it has a breathable exhale valve or a soft cottony or foam type interior is one feature that can make wearing these types of respirators more comfortable. This type of mask is not designed to be used when filtering any type of coatings.
Respirators are designed to filter and protect from organic vapors that exist when applying coatings and working with chemicals. They typically have three parts that attach to the facemask that should be properly fitted to your face. The first part is the filter or cartridge, the selection of the type of cartridge is based on what type of chemical exposure you will be exposed to. The second part of the filtering is a particulate filter that acts like a pre filter to catch certain oil and nonoil based particles along with floating dust before it hits the cartridge. The third and outer piece of the filter is the retainer usually a plastic preformed cover that holds the three parts together.
Store your masks correctly to get the full benefits and service life from the filter once you have the proper cartridge. I have walked into more shops than not, and have seen the finishers respirator hanging on a hook outside the booth, or resting on the mixing table uncovered exposing itself to all contaminates in the work area. The mask doesn’t know if it’s on your face or on a bench, so it just keeps filtering, you can have a brand new mask that goes bad after just a few hours due to improper storage. When not wearing your mask, place it into a closed container such as a Ziploc bag, or plastic container with a sealed lid so you stop the exposure so the filter can work longer.
Proper fit is important and fit testing should be done to assure you are properly fitted when wearing a respirator. Facial hair will impede a proper fit. Place your hand over the center breather valve and try to breathe out is a simple test after you place the respirator on your face and adjust the straps to snug the mask to your face. If you cannot breathe you have a proper fit. Now put your hands over both cartridges and breathe in, if the mask moves slightly inward from your face, you have a proper fit. This is a simple quick test but certainty does not cancel the need to be properly fit tested. OSHA requires every shop to have a written program that records respiratory protection practices, selections, training, fitting and maintenance of respirators. Contact your current supplier and see if they offer fit testing.
Atmosphere-supplying respirators are self-containing fresh air systems that supply you clean air while wearing it. This type will insure no exposure to the chemicals enters your lungs when exposed in that environment. Powered Air Purifying Respirators is motorized respirator systems that use a fan or compressor to deliver filtered air into a hood, helmet or face piece. There are several types, but all include a motor blower unit, headpiece of some kind, a battery and (usually) breathing tube. Go over your specific needs with your supplier to be sure you have the right system for your needs. These systems cost more than the other two types but provide you the best protection.
Remember when it comes to your safety only you can protect yourself from the dangers around you.