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What You Need to Know about Respirators in 2021

By: Emily Milford, CSP, and Megan Scherer

Respirators became the hottest workplace accessory of 2020. And for good reason. They are designed to protect workers from potential workplace hazards, including COVID-19. Over the last 12 months, droves of general industry and healthcare workers got medically cleared and fit tested for N95 respirators and elastomeric half-face or full-face respirators.

For everyone out there now donning respirators, we put together a summary of the most important respirator protection information.

1. Medical clearances – If you are required to wear a respirator, you are also required to complete a medical clearance to make sure that the respirator is not putting too much additional stress on the body. This applies even for N95s, aka dust masks. A medical clearance is a short and confidential questionnaire that asks questions about your health history to ensure you don’t have any underlying health conditions that wearing a respirator would exacerbate.

2. Fit testing – This short physical test helps to ensure the respirator is providing adequate protection. During a fit test, the person completes seven 60 second exercises while wearing the respirator to verify that there are no leaks in the seal of the respirator. A fit test must be completed for each type of mask worn. Some employees wear different masks based on the job task (last year we saw many people using multiple masks due to PPE shortages).

3. Frequency of fit testing – It’s required annually to ensure the mask(s) still fits. However, due to the respirator shortage because of COVID-19, OSHA has relaxed their annual fit testing requirement for certain circumstances. Learn more here.

4. Types of fit testing – There are two main ways to be fit tested—qualitatively or quantitatively.

  • Qualitative fit testing uses one of 3 different solutions, Bitrex, Saccharin, or Isoamyl acetate, aerosolized inside an enclosure placed over the test subject’s head. The test subject wears the respirator while inside the enclosure to see if they can taste the test solution. If the wearer can taste the solution, there is a leak.
  • Quantitative fit testing uses one of two machines, the Portacount or the Quantifit. Each respirator has a specially designed adaptor that connects the mask to the machine via tube. The Portacount compares the particles inside the mask to the particles outside the mask and gives you a fit factor. The Quantifit pulls negative pressure inside the mask, and to keep the pressure constant, it pulls out any additional air that leaks into the respirator. This measurement tells you how much air has leaked into the mask, and that leak amount is converted to a fit factor.

5. Wear and tear – Respirators are subject to wear and tear, just like other personal protective equipment. You should inspect all respirators before each use, always check for cracks, stretched out straps, missing valves, mis-shaped face seals, and any other wear that could change the fit or affect the protection value of the mask. If there is any visible damage or wear, the respirator should be taken out of service and replaced. Respirators should always be stored in a bag or container that keeps dust and contaminates off the respirator and in an area that does not have excessive temperature fluctuations. Respirators should not be stored in vehicles as the temperature fluctuations will cause the elastomeric parts of the mask to degrade.

Remember, respirators provide proper protection only if all requirements are followed and they are properly taken care of.

Jacqueline "Jackie" Annis is an industrial hygienist with the Office of Partnerships and Recognition, Directorate of Cooperative and State Programs in OSHA’s National Office.  Jackie’s primary responsibilities include developing and overseeing internal policies and procedures for the VPP, reviewing VPP on-site evaluation reports for process safety management information, serving as the National Office liaison for two of OSHA’s ten Regions, and facilitating the management of OSHA’s National Strategic Partnership Program.  She is an integral part of OSHA’s National Office team. 

She has served with the Agency for 36 years, including five years as a senior industrial hygienist in OSHA’s Office of Health Enforcement, Directorate of Enforcement Programs in the National Office and 17 years as a compliance safety and health officer in the Denver, CO Area Office.  Prior to her tenure at OSHA, Jackie worked as an industrial hygienist for the Department of the Navy in Alameda, California.  Jackie obtained a Bachelor of Science degree from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA in 1983.

Wayne Howard earned a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from UC Davis and has spent 12 years with Shell (at Martinez) refinery, 3 years with the consulting firm Process Safety, 15 years with Valero (at Benicia), and the last 10 years in the Corporate Process Safety Department. He is the Valero representative to AFPM's Advancing Process Safety Initiative.

Nathan Obaugh, PE is a senior engineer in the Safety and Operational Excellence Group at NuStar Energy. Nathan has over 10 years of PSM and process design experience in the petrochemical, refining and midstream industries. At NuStar, Nathan oversees all elements of the corporate PSM program and works directly on hazard analysis, process safety studies, PSM/RMP audits and provides process engineering support to the operations and capital projects groups.

Jared Teter, PhD is a senior staff scientist with a background in physics and hazards analysis. He has extensive experience in subscale testing of energetic materials and has served as program manager for several large testing and risk management projects. He has applied engineering and risk management protocols while evaluating the risk associated with propellant and explosives manufacturing, combustible dust, and other hazardous material related processes.

Tim Belitz has a degree in Environmental Health/Industrial Hygiene from Old Dominion University and a Master’s from Duke University. He has over 25 years of Industrial Health Safety and Environmental Experience and is a Certified Safety Professional. He has many years focused on Contractor Management and Process Safety programs.

Rob Walker graduated from Virginia Tech in Microbiology and Chemical Engineering. Rob has almost 35 years of experience working in the chemical plant and refining industry. His passion for Process Safety and Mechanical Integrity began very early in his career. Rob began with his current company, Honeywell, back in 2011.

Prasad Joshi has B.S. and M.S. Degrees in Chemical Engineering from two universities in India. Prasad has over 30 years’ experience in the business. He began with Honeywell in May 2022 as Principal Maintenance Engineer. He has worked internationally in Asia and Europe.