Respiratory Protection

In today’s work environment it is common for employees to work near chemicals or dust, which may be harmful if inhaled. It is common to find employees grabbing the nearest dust mask available and believing they are protected. The reality of the situation is that the wrong type of respirator or filtering device does about as much as not having a respirator on at all. It can lead to employees believing they are protected and an hour later they can be laying on the floor unresponsive. Training on how to use the respirator and the limitations of each respirator can be the difference between an employee going home to his or her family and an employee dying.

There are three basic types of respirators available: dust masks, air purifying respirators, and supplied air unit respirators.

Dust Mask

The most common type of respiratory protection is the dust mask. This is mainly because they are the cheapest and easiest to obtain. A dust mask can be bought cheaply at the local hardware store. OSHA requires dust masks used in the workplace to be NIOSH approved. There are two ways to identify if a dust mask is NIOSH approved. The first way is to look for the NIOSH approval which is printed directly on the mask. The second way which may be more obvious is the number of straps on the dust mask. The dust mask will have double straps if it is NIOSH approved. Single strap dust masks will never be NIOSH approved. Keep in mind dust masks provide a very limited amount of protection, only up to ten times the permissible exposure limit for particulates and cannot be used for any chemical or vapor exposure protection.

Air Purifying Respirator

The next type is an air purifying respirator. This type of respirator works by using cartridges or filters that purify the air being inhaled from the surrounding atmosphere. The three kinds of basic filters are as follows

  1. Particulate – Used for dusts, mists, and fumes only
  2. Chemical – Used for filtering different kinds of chemicals, but NOT dust or fumes
  3. Combination filters – Can filter both chemicals and dusts. Keep in mind that since they are doing twice the work there is twice the filtering material making them harder to breathe through.

Air Supplied Unit

The third type of basic respirator is the air supplied unit. These type of respirators are used when an employee is working in an environment that exposes or has the potential to expose the employee to an atmosphere that is considered immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH). This can either be a result of high levels of toxic chemicals or have an insufficient amount of oxygen. The air being supplied can be obtained by an air compressor pumping air to the respirator through a hose or it can come from a tank worn on the users back.

This type of respirator provides the highest degree of protection, but I has its limitations, such as restricted movement or time restraints. They also require a higher degree of maintenance and the training requirements are more extensive than others.


Remember, all employees required to use respiratory protection must be medically evaluated prior to use. In addition, annual fit testing as well as training must also be performed, and the results both documented and kept on file.

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