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Airborne Carcinogens


Life is very valuable. No one can promise you a longer life, but someone or something can help you live healthier with a lower possibility of becoming ill.

In workplaces, forward-thinking companies strive to support the employees to have a healthier working environment. Also employees, once they understand the reasons, aim to benefit from that support.

Air is one of the mandatory elements a human needs to live, not to mention to be healthy. No one can survive without oxygen. Air has an amazing quality that most super heroes and normal people would be blessed to have. This trait is being unseen, unfelt (under normal conditions) either by touch or by taste or even by smell (unless contaminated). As a defence mechanism in our body we have a filtration system that helps us protect our lungs; unfortunately this mechanism is not efficient all the time against different pollutants.

Exposure to such pollutants can seriously harm the health of workers, even if the effects are not seen for many years. In some cases, this can lead to cancer. The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) has been raising awareness of work-related cancer through its No Time to Lose campaign. Businesses across the world have signed a pledge to do what they can to protect staff from harmful carcinogens, including those which can be breathed in such as silica dust.

Science and technology have provided us with tools to enhance our defence mechanism and give better protection for our lungs. This is how employees can be better helped to live a healthier life; provided they use it, maintain it and replace it properly when required.

In this article, the topic is the Respiratory Protection Equipment (RPE); how to create a programme at work, how to select and use, and how to maintain it.

The selection and usage of the correct RPE is an interesting process as it has quite a few angles that need consideration from selection to acceptance.

Safety and health professionals should thoroughly consider:

  • The kind of hazard(s) to which the users of RPE are exposed
  • Efficient performance - wearing PPE can hinder flexibility and capability to do a job
  • Ease of training usage and maintenance
  • The shape of the face and the personal preference
  • The human aspect - compliance and understanding

With regards to the last point, in the majority of the cases workers may prefer not to wear RPE. It is understandable that workers don’t appreciate extra equipment outside the norm to be worn during some tasks, especially as using PPE, not to mention RPE, is not easy and effort is required to get used to it. As the dangers of respiratory hazards are not visible and health complications often do not manifest immediately, trying to convey the importance of PPE to workers can be challenging.

Respiratory protection programme

There are four main points that employers and safety professionals need to follow to provide an efficient RPE programme. They must: identify the hazard; understand the contaminants’ effects on workers; select the right respiratory protection equipment; and finally train the workers.

Identify the hazard

There are five main categories for airborne contaminants or so-called particulates:

  • Dusts - solid particles that float in the air and could be generated from sanding, grinding, sweeping and so on
  • Fumes - very fine airborne particles generated from heating metals and other substances to boiling point; fumes are generated from welding or soldering
  • Mists - tiny droplets of airborne liquids generated from condensation, spraying or mixing
  • Gases - substances that are in their gaseous state in normal temperature and pressure such as methane, hydrogen sulphide, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide
  • Vapours - it is the vapours evaporated from substances that are in the liquid states in normal temperature and pressure, such as solvents, toluene, xylene, thinners and gasoline

It is very important to identify the contaminant type and concentration. Employers should also keep in mind that the worker could be exposed to more than one of the above particulates.

There are bodies that provide information about materials: one of them is the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) and another is the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). They have both published pocket-sized reference books on chemical hazards to assist in evaluating worker exposure levels.

Understanding the contaminants’ effects on workers

Certain conditions such as the extremely high concentration of a contaminant will cause Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health (IDLH) conditions. In some other situations, such as in confined spaces, the contaminants could displace oxygen. Alternatively, they could react with the oxygen, causing the oxygen concentration in the area to drop below the 19.5%. This will cause oxygen deficiency, which can be life threatening.

Using the information gathered from different resources and knowing the concentration of the contaminant as well as the oxygen concentration will allow the employer to select the right respiratory protection equipment.

Selecting the right respiratory protection equipment

Generally speaking, there are two types of respiratory protection equipment:

  • Air purifying RPE that filters out the workplace air from the contaminant
  • RPE that supplies fresh air from an uncontaminated source

Employers should consult manufacturers or specialised bodies or hire specialised personnel to provide them with the right RPE. As mentioned, the type and concentration of the contaminant and the situation will determine the type of RPE required. For example, it helps you decide if you require maintenance-free (disposable) RPE, a half-face mask with activated charcoal cartridges designed especially for organic vapours, acid gases or other special gases, or a full-face mask.

Another important point is the comfort of the worker. It is proven that the compliance rate for the workers will significantly increase if the RPE they are using is comfortable for them. Also people with special conditions must be identified and the right RPE must be provided for them. For example, workers who have a beard for cultural reasons and/or have irregularities in their faces such as wounds must be provided with the right RPE to ensure proper fit. In such situations usually a positive pressure RPE like the Powered Air Purifying Respirator (PAPR) will solve the problem providing they are not exposed to IDLH situations or oxygen deficient environments.

Training the workers

After selecting the right RPE – and depending on the type of the RPE – each worker must receive training on the proper fitting and use of the equipment, as well as advice on servicing, cleaning, maintaining and storing the RPE properly. Workers must also be informed about the importance of wearing the RPE and about the long-term or short-term effect of the contaminant on their health. Posters, leaflets, brochures and comprehensive training are highly recommended in order to emphasise the importance of using the RPE properly. There is no excuse not to use the RPE. Employees are also encouraged to incentivise the workers using the right RPE.

As part of this step it is also important to perform the fit test for all the workers, which comes in two ways:

  1. Qualitative fit test (QLFT). In this test the worker is asked to fit the RPE and then asked to do a number of exercises such as jogging and moving the head in certain directions, as well as bending over and breathing fast and slow. Then the worker is exposed to a certain approved non-harmful material such as irritant smoke. If they inhale it and cough, then this means that the RPE is not suitable or the worker is not using it properly. Certain measures should be taken in this situation to make sure the RPE is used properly and is suitable for the worker.
  2. Quantitative fit test (QNFT). In this test the fit of the RPE is quantified by applying a substance and measuring the concentration outside the RPE and inside it, and then quantifying the fit of the RPE for that particular worker. The same exercise is also required from the worker to try to simulate the actual work conditions using the same RPE.

Respiratory protection in hot environments

It is inevitable that the respiratory protective equipment will not give the most pleasant and comfortable feeling while wearing it. Add to that the high temperatures in areas like the Gulf region during the summer time and this creates the perfect recipe for lower compliance rates. Therefore, manufacturers are trying to provide solutions to this problem and encourage workers to use respiratory protection.

There are many different ways that this is being done:

Disposable masks, half-face masks and full-face masks

For disposable, half-face and full-face respiratory protection equipment, employers are encouraged to provide the equipment with a one-way breathing valve that helps reduce the heat build-up inside the mask. When we exhale, the breath coming out from our bodies is relatively hot and contains water vapour; hence the sweating increases in the area covered by the mask. The valve is a one-way valve that instantly releases the exhaled breath, closing when we inhale to prevent any contaminant from entering.

Powered Air Purifying Respirator

As we know, if the worker has a problem fitting the negative pressure type respirators then they will have to go for positive pressure equipment. The positive pressure PAPR, with loose-fit headgear, will actually help the worker to feel fresher, simply because the filtered air is flowing on his/her face. This fresh air keeps the worker feeling cool and helps reduce sweating during work.

Supplied Air Respirator

In some cases, the situation requires a supplied air system. In other words, the air will be supplied to the worker from another fresh source since the air around the worker can’t be filtered or it can be difficult to filter – or there could be a threat of oxygen depletion such as in a confined space. In this case, the fresh air supplied can be cooled down and supplied to the workers, hence the fresh feeling of the worker.

In case the air is pressurised as in some systems, a small gadget could be used to create a vortex in the pressurised air, which causes the hot air to separate from the cold air. Such a gadget could be used in both loose-fit and tight-fit headgear when the supplied air is compressed air.

Training and maintenance

Training is a vital part of the whole respiratory protection programme for many reasons:

  • Ensuring high compliance rates and therefore worker wellbeing
  • Ensuring your investment in PPE is not wasted and you get a return on your investment in terms of output and lower absenteeism
  • Reducing insurance costs and reaching a zero-incident workplace
  • Attracting highly-skilled workers

Any training programme should cover the following as a minimum:

  • Why you need to use the respiratory protection provided, including showing workers that it is a measure they are having to take because there were no other measures possible such as engineering a solution, eliminating the hazard or substituting it with another element
  • What the hazard they are exposed to is and the long and short-term effect on their health
  • What the respirator can and cannot do
  • How they can properly (and probably visually) inspect the RPE and make sure it is working fine
  • How to put it on and take it off
  • How to check the seal and perform a user seal check
  • How to manage emergency situations in case the RPE is not working properly

As well as training, the RPE should be regularly maintained and checked. It also has to be stored properly according to manufacturer instructions. In general, maintenance-free RPE such as the disposable masks can’t be maintained as they will have to be disposed when the lifetime of the RPE expires. Proper storage of the RPE is important to make sure it is good to use.

Usually during break time or lunch time employees keep the mask inside the workplace, which is not recommended as the workplace is then contaminated and the particulates will settle inside the mask. So when the worker puts the mask on again he/she will inhale all the contaminants.

Masks should be put on before entering the workplace and must not be taken off unless the worker leaves the contaminated area. The mask should not be folded or damaged during the break time and the worker must ensure the mask is stored properly in a clean area. It is important to mention that the employer should provide a proper area for storing the respiratory protection system.

If the employee is using re-usable RPE, the manufacturer should provide proper maintenance and storage instructions and this should be communicated clearly for all workers during the training programme. Generally speaking, cleaning the RPE should be done using a dampened clean cloth with warm water (not hot) and we should not use any detergent or solvent in the cleaning process. Moreover, the workers usually write their names or site on the RPE or in some cases they stick the company logo or other stickers on the RPE. This is a wrong habit and should be stopped immediately as the writing or sticking of any adhesive material could affect the integrity of the RPE.

Storage of the RPE before providing it to workers and/or during breaks and lunch time should be done properly in a clean area away from any contaminants and away from sunlight or rain. It should be stored inside a temperature controlled environment such as the company offices. The worker should check the RPE before each use and make sure it is intact.

For RPE with activated carbon cartridges the employer should maintain a proper record for each worker and make sure they are replacing the cartridges at the right time. This depends on the lifetime of the cartridge and the amount and type of contaminant they are exposed to. In some cases, like when using SCBA, the equipment should be sent to the manufacturer or any authorised and qualified party to check the device regularly, calibrate it and make sure it is good to use.

Ultimately it is the employer’s responsibility to provide the proper respiratory protection and to train the workers on the right use and make sure the compliance rate is high.

The article was co-authored by Farah Haddad

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Ahmed El Hadidi