Respiratory Protective Equipment

Hazardous airborne substances like dust and chemicals can be a significant risk on site. They can cause cancer, organ damage and in worst-case scenarios, death. Often these substances can’t be seen with the naked eye but will cause ongoing long-term health problems. Masks, or respiratory protective equipment (RPE), are one way of preventing harm from these substances.

Do You Need RPE?

RPE, like other types of personal protective equipment, should be considered a last resort. Before using them, you should first try to eliminate or minimise the risk of exposure. Before deciding to use RPE, you must first do a risk assessment justifying its use. If using RPE you’ll also need to remember to monitor the health of anyone who could be at risk to make sure it’s working effectively.

Before using RPE, think about:

  • Could I use a safer substance?
  • Enclosing the task to prevent it escaping into the air
  • Modifying the process e.g. supress dust with water
  • Extracting emissions/dust e.g. local exhaust ventilation (LEV). Providing workers with RPE is not a quick and easy fix – it can be costly to maintain and replace. Over time, engineering control measures such as local exhaust ventilation may be more cost-effective.

However, there will be times when you do need to use RPE. For example:

  • While you are arranging to install other control measures
  • For clearing up a spill
  • During temporary failure of a control measure e.g. sudden failure of LEV
  • For cleaning, e.g. low pressure washing of a dusty shed
  • For short, one-off procedures

Types of RPE

The three main types of respirators are:

  • Respirators that use filters to remove contaminants. These come in two main types: a particulate respirator which filters out dust and gas respirators which filter out gas and vapours.
  • Powered air purifying respirators (PAPRs) where contaminated air is forced by a powered fan through filters to provide purified air.
  • Supplied air respirators that provide a supply of clean air from a source such as a cylinder or air compressor.

Choosing the Right RPE

Selecting the right RPE can be confusing; you should get advice from occupational hygienists and suppliers of RPE to make sure you invest in the right protection.

If you are selecting RPE, consider these three things: substance, operator and task.

Substance: what is the type, nature and toxicity of the contaminant. Is it a mist, gas or solid? If the device doesn’t work correctly or fails, what is the worst that could happen? If there’s an accident, would it be a fire risk? What control measures does the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) for the substance you are working with recommend? Are you choosing the right type of RPE and filter for the hazard?

Operator: get the right size and face fit – and remember facial hair will affect the fit. It needs to be reasonably comfortable and compatible with other PPE that is being worn. You should arrange for fit testing, which can often be done by the supplier. This is also a good chance to train your workers in the correct way to wear and use RPE.

Task: is it for regular use, short or long duration, confined space, ventilation, light or heavy work? What is the access and location of air and does the wearer need clear vision? You’ll need to have a maintenance programme which includes cleaning, and checking for defects. Remember to store RPE properly - it’s best to use an airtight container.

Get Advice

The selection of RPE will usually require expert help. But as an example, general construction work, asbestos work, spraying, brushing/rolling and welding/fabrication working will all require different types or respirator.

General construction work might include cutting, sawing, sanding, drilling, sweeping etc.

This type of work could create silica dust, wood dust and general nuisance dust.

A disposable respirator is usually suitable for most general construction tasks where exposures are low (less than 10 times the workplace exposure standard) and where it will only be used for short periods. Get an expert to help you determine your workplace exposure standards. But for general construction work where the work is more than 50 times the workplace exposure standard, then a full face reusable respirator and filter will be required. Disposable respirators are not suitable for asbestos, spraying, brushing/rolling or welding or fabrication work.

Learn more about controlling dust.

Rules and Regulations