Respiratory Protection: The Air You Breathe at Work
Every year, over 200 workers in the United States die from a disease called silicosis. Hundreds of other workers - some as young as 22 years old – become disabled, unable to provide for themselves or their families. Silicosis is caused by breathing in fine particles of silica which become trapped inside the lungs. They cannot be removed; they simply build up over time until the victim is permanently disabled or worse. Silica particles are found in many kinds of rock, masonry, paints, concrete, soil, mortar, and plaster. Any type of work that involves cutting, drilling, digging, abrading, or blasting these kinds of materials puts workers at risk for this disease.
Silicosis isn’t the only respiratory disease plaguing workers every year; from coalworker’s pneumoconiosis to mesothelioma, workers are at risk for numerous ailments due to chemicals and contaminants in the air they breathe. That's why respiratory protection is such a crucial part of any job site safety protocol.
Protect Your Breath
Respirators are masks that cover the wearer's nose and mouth and prevent the inhalation of hazardous substances. Respirators come in many different forms and have varying uses. They are either tight-fitting or loose-fitting, covering just the mouth and nose (tight) or covering the head completely (loose).
Within those two categories, they filter out harmful particles from the air or provide clean breathable air from a controlled source (OSHA, 2002). Air-purifying respirators require filters or sorbents to soak up materials in the air before they enter your body. On the other hand, those that supply air use their own source of oxygen and do not rely on filtering outside air.
Choosing which respirator to use is dependent on the area performing work in and the amount of time that protection is needed. If a worker is entering a contaminated area, an air-purifying mask will temporarily protect them. But if the task at hand requires a longer time frame, air-supplying respirators allow an extended period of protection (OSHA, 2002).
All respirators used should be certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Their website keeps a running list of approved models, so it is easy to check whether a device is guaranteed before purchasing.
Detection: A Look at Hydrogen Sulfide
Besides PPE that you wear, there are other ways to protect from hazardous gasses in the air. Let's take hydrogen sulfide for example.
Found primarily as a byproduct in the oil and gas refining, mining, and paper industries, hydrogen sulfide (H2S) is a colorless gas that emits a smell that resembles a rotten egg. H2S is highly flammable, toxic, occurs naturally around waste and in wells, and gathers in confined spaces (OSHA, Hydrogen).
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), acute exposure to H2S can result in "nausea, headaches, delirium, disturbed equilibrium, tremors, convulsions, and skin and eye irritation" (ATSDR, 2014). Exposure to high concentrations can result in unconsciousness or death.
A study of H2S fatalities during a 7 year period showed that the majority of deaths happened with workers in their first year of working for a company (Hendrickson, 2004). As with any workplace hazard, preventing H2S injuries starts with education of the threat and its preventative measures before a worker ever sets foot on a worksite.
Portable gas monitors make it easy to test for the presence of hydrogen sulfide and other gasses, but they should be under the care of qualified personnel. Air monitoring must be done at regular intervals whenever there is a possibility of exposure. OSHA has set H2S exposure limits in different industries, as seen below.
- General Industry - Not to exceed 20 parts per million (PPM), with exception of a less than 10-minute exposure ranging from 20 PPM to 50 PPM, during an eight-hour shift when no other measurable exposure has occurred
- Construction - Not to exceed 10 parts per million, time-weighted average
- Shipyard - Not to exceed 10 parts per million, time-weighted average (OSHA, Standards)
If a situation arises where the levels may be immediately dangerous to life or health, there must be at least one person outside the danger area who maintains communications with those inside.
Know Your Situation and Gear
Every environment is different and therefore subject to different protection measures. A combination of monitoring contaminant levels, knowing safe limits, and what type of respirator to use will put you on the path to safety success.
Situations Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health (IDLH)
Oxygen deficiency and highly toxic air contaminants - Require use of full face, pressure-demand self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBA) that last for more than 30 minutes. Pressure-demand devices only provide oxygen when the user inhales.
Contaminated atmospheres - Necessary to use positive-pressure SCBAs and/or gas masks. Positive pressure masks prevent inward leaking with a slightly higher air pressure inside the mask than the outside environment.
Not Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health
Gas or vapor contaminants that are not at a toxic level - Use positive pressure Supplied Air Respirators (SAR), gas mask, or canister respirator.
Particulate contaminants - Use positive-pressure SARs that have abrasive blasting protection or air-purifying respirators that have the specific filter for the particulates in the air.
Smoke and other fire related contaminants - Require a positive pressure SCBA (OSHA 2002)
Safety starts with education and the right mindset. Improper respiratory protection has caused and will unfortunately continue to cause loss of lives and negative health consequences. Following safety protocol and wearing proper PPE can significantly decrease the toll that it takes. To view all of ORR Safety's respiratory protection gear, click here. If you would like to speak to a person from ORR about this subject further and develop your safety plan, click the button below to contact us.
ATSDR (2014) Hydrogen Sulfide. Retrieved from: https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/MHMI/mmg114.pdf
Hendrickson (2004) Co-worker fatalities from hydrogen sulfide. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15029566
OSHA. Hydrogen Sulfide. Retrieved from: https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/hydrogensulfide/
OSHA (2002) Respiratory Protection. Retrieved from: https://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA3079/osha3079.html
OSHA. Hydrogen Sulfide Standards. Retrieved from: https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/hydrogensulfide/standards.html