We’ve all been there. Whether you’ve sat through a painfully prolonged deathly silence, or perhaps caught the tail end of a toxic argument – we’ve all experienced atmospheres so thick with tension that we’ve pleaded for the ground to swallow us up. But perhaps next time we should instead think ourselves lucky that the atmosphere in question is one of social awkwardness, rather than – as is the case for workers in oxygen deficient atmospheres – a genuine matter of life and death.

Take a deep breath in. And slowly exhale. And another deep breath in, feeling the expansion of air in your chest and abdomen; and slowly exhale again. Relaxing, isn’t it? Maybe you go so far as to close your eyes for a few moments and picture a beautiful, tranquil setting. But now, imagine quite the opposite: you’re in a confined space, carrying out a difficult job that would stress you out in any environment, let alone while working against the clock, knowing that with the hard conditions and your elevated breathing rate, the 30-minute tank of your SCBA will likely last half that time.

“If only the air we breathe didn’t keep trying to kill us!”

What a luxury to be able to take breathing for granted, yet, with the right risk assessments, clued up colleagues and proper PPE that you’re familiar with and feel confident and comfortable in, you can feel as happy in a confined space as you would curled up on the sofa.

It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it: I’m looking at you, firefighters, confined space workers, and everyone else working in oxygen deficient atmospheres. If I’ve heard it once I’ve heard it a thousand times: “If only the air we breathe didn’t keep trying to kill us!” But the fact of the matter is, in those environments risk can seldom be completely removed. That’s why – since life is short and we needn’t make it any shorter just to earn a buck – we must stay protected and prepared. “But how?” I hear you cry. Given the complexities of these environments and the height of the stakes it’s no small task, but knowledge is power, so let’s get armed.

Don’t be a hero

It almost goes without saying by now, but when planning a job follow the hierarchy of risk, and if you don’t need to send people into the line of fire then don’t. Simple as that. There’s no more kudos associated with doing a job while in unnecessary danger; far better to carry out as much work as possible in the lowest risk environment.

“when planning a job follow the hierarchy of risk, and if you don’t need to send people into the line of fire then don’t”

In case you need reminding, in order of priority in the hierarchy of risk, you’re looking at:

  • Eliminate – remove hazard
  • Substitute – replace hazard • Engineering controls – isolate people from the hazard
  • Administrative controls – change how people work
  • PPE – lastly, protect each worker on a personal level

Now, the hierarchy of controls is obviously a go to, an essential tool for every safety professional, but bear with me while I momentarily contradict myself.

Personal protection

For many different areas of safety, say working at height or guarding against slips and trips, we of course focus on the hierarchy’s progress down through the levels in an orderly fashion, eliminating and substituting as we go. Of course that’s preferable; however, when you get to a hazard that can’t be eliminated, substituted, engineered out or controlled via admin, PPE becomes pretty darn important. So, when you’re dealing with work that needs conducting amidst toxic air quality – and despite mitigation the risks remain high – then that PPE becomes of incredible importance.

More specifically, in accordance with the laws governing the control of harmful substances in the workplace and their supporting Approved Codes of Practice (ACOP) you should only use RPE in the following circumstances:

  • Where residual risk remains despite having other controls in place • While interim control measures are taking effect
  • For emergency work or temporary failure of controls where other means of control are not reasonably practicable
  • For short-term or infrequent exposure, such as during maintenance work, where you decide that other controls at the source of the exposure are not reasonably practicable

Deciding to use RPE doesn’t just mean donning any old face mask to look compliant when Mr Clipboard does a mandatory tour of the worksite, oh no no. Think respiratory protection is all the same? Think again. Respiratory protective equipment is split into two distinct camps: respirators and breathing apparatus, and those types are worlds apart when it comes to the scenarios in which they should be used.

Respirators

Using filters to remove airborne contaminants, these respirators are commonly used when welding, handling dusts, cutting or grinding materials, or using chemicals that emit solvents.

Respirators can be powered or nonpowered, either using a motor to pass air through the filter, or using the wearer’s breath to draw air through the filter, respectively. Depending on the hazard the wearer will encounter, different filters are available to protect against solid or liquid particles, vapours and gases.

Breathing apparatus

Breathing apparatus, on the other hand, requires an independent supply of breathing-quality air. This can be from an air compressor or air cylinder.

Since by definition breathing apparatus needs a supply of breathing-quality air from an independent source, it is the only form of RPE suitable for use in oxygen deficient atmospheres that are immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH).

According to OSHA, atmospheres that are, or are potentially, immediately dangerous to life or health are defined as having: “Atmospheric concentration of any toxic, corrosive or asphyxiant substance that poses an immediate threat to life or would cause irreversible or delayed adverse health effects, or would interfere with an individual’s ability to escape from a dangerous atmosphere.”

The table below outlines the effects of exposure to oxygen deficient environments.

In the know

All the gear, no idea. It’s a phrase generally reserved for that person who, on a whim, purchases every single piece of (usually high-end) kit they deem vital to engage in an activity, without any knowledge of what they really need, what to do with it, or if they’ll stick at it long enough to need said swag. Well, the same phrase comes to mind when considering people who are handed their respiratory protection and sent on their way. It’s one thing having the right kit, but unless you’re trained to use it, it’s as good as useless.

All respiratory protection, whether powered, non-powered, air supplying or filtered, must meet the following criteria.

Adequate control

All respiratory protection must provide ‘adequate’ control of inhalation exposure. There’s no use in sending someone off to sand some wood kitted out in full SCBA, it would be absolute overkill. Likewise, giving someone a particulate filter mask and popping them into a confined space is likely to end badly. As with any PPE, more is never better; only the correct level keeps us optimally protected, which is why fully understanding the hazards present is of such importance.

Suitability

Not only should the RPE be suited to the task, it must also be suited to the wearer. For tight fitting facepieces this is ensured through face fit testing. When the use of BA is in question the quality of supplied air should also be tested periodically, at least every three months. For an easy to follow breakdown of whether RPE is adequate and suitable, see the HSE’s Practical Guide to Respiratory Protective Equipment at Work.

Approved type and standard

Approved types and standards vary country to country, but if in doubt ensuring a product has CE markings is an excellent place to start. When it comes specifically to guidelines in the Middle East, let’s look briefly at those for Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

The Government of Dubai’s guideline on Personal Protective Equipment for Respiratory Protection was issued by the government in pursuance of Local Order No. 61 of 1991. It stipulates that all employers of designated industries must provide free of cost equipment for the respiratory protection of employees. It is the responsibility of the employer and supervisor to provide proper selection, maintenance, training and use of the respiratory protective equipment. Dubai’s guidelines cover three types of respiratory protective devices: air purifying devices, air-supplied respirators, and self-contained breathing apparatus.

“breathing apparatus is the only form of RPE suitable for oxygen deficient atmospheres”

Moving onto Abu Dhabi, and the Abu Dhabi Framework Code of Practice 2.0 for Occupational Safety and Health System: Personal Protective Equipment. This framework dictates that wherever an employee is subject to airborne contaminants in excess of the threshold values, it is the prime duty of the employer to provide respiratory protection equipment to the employees. Employers must establish a written Respiratory Protection Programme which requires site-specific procedures. In addition, employers must have a designated ‘competent person’ who is trained to supervise and administer the respiratory protection programme.

Training

As touched upon above, training is of paramount importance. RPE must be used by properly trained people who are supervised.

Trust and grooming

Working in an oxygen deficient atmosphere is a potentially stressing enough situation without also worrying about whether you’ve been bought reputable kit, whether it’s been properly maintained, whether you shaved closely enough that morning, the impact of your recent dental work, or how much weight you’ve lost or gained since face fit testing.

When using BA, your life is placed in the hands of those around you – the fit testers and your procurement team have a lot to answer for – but you must also take a great deal of responsibility yourself. Correct maintenance and storage of your RPE is vital to ensure it keeps working optimally, but likewise, personal maintenance (read: grooming) is another must.

If a late night of shopping and shisha results in your oversleeping and rushing to work without time for a shave it could end up costing you your life. Research from the UK’s Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has found that effectiveness of respiratory protection is significantly reduced after 24hrs from clean shaven. For this reason, some companies introduce a clean-shaven requirement into their health and safety policies. For workers that cannot shave for medical and religious reasons, however, this is clearly not an option. In these cases, alternative forms of RPE are available upon request; loose fitting facepieces can be used rather than tight fitting masks, however, they are available only as breathing apparatus or powered respirators.

If the face fits

While touched upon in the previous section, face fit testing is of paramount importance to the effectiveness of tight fitting respiratory protection. If one little mask is all that stands between you and starving of oxygen, you’d better do more than hope that its seal to your face is perfect.

The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires that fit testing should be assessed at least annually, in addition to:

  • Whenever a different size, model, style or make of respirator is introduced
  • When facial changes occur that could affect fit, such as weight fluctuations or dentistry

Fit testing measures the seal, compatibility and stability of RPE and takes two forms: qualitative and quantitative. The former relies on the wearer’s senses and whether they detect certain tastes or smells to which they are subjected. In quantitative testing, on the other hand, the facepiece is attached to a hose, whereby the amount of leakage into the facepiece is measured objectively. Quantitative fit testing can be used for any type of tight-fitting respirator, whereas qualitative fit testing is suitable only for tight fitting facepieces used with powered and atmosphere-supplying respirators; and negative-pressure, air-purifying respirators, as long as they’ll only be used in atmospheres where the hazard is at less than 10 times the permissible exposure limit.

Compliance

You’ve got the right RPE on the right faces, fitting correctly, and being maintained by the book. Congratulations – you’ve achieved the gold standard. And yet you’re still hearing reports that all is not as it should be: it’s not being worn correctly or in some cases at all.

Then there’s the age-old example of a worker cutting a hole through their filter mask so they could smoke without having to remove their RPE, thereby in some skewed reality considering themselves still protected, since technically the mask is still on.

By no means the smallest hurdle, this necessitates a company-wide change in attitudes toward safety. And it comes back to what was said at the start of this article: knowledge is power. Just give someone PPE and they’ll wear it when you’re looking; explain its importance and have everyone understand why they’re using it, and they’re more likely to wear it by choice.

Key to this is also involving workers in the process. They can take accountability, raise concerns, and actually feel valued – and that goes so much further than a lot of employers seem to realise. Of course, as the saying goes, you have to speculate to accumulate. Some employers can’t get passed that initial outlay on something deemed inessential, such as masks that are easier to breathe in without rapidly overheating, or more manoeuvrable SCBA units, but if those improvements mean people can do their jobs with greater ease then they will be more productive. They’ll also be more likely to stay compliant, meaning they’ll stay healthy, which in turn reduces the cost of sickness days. When compared to absence rates, poor output, and fines from lack of compliance, I bet suddenly that PPE isn’t looking as expensive.

A problem shared

One last point: don’t keep issues to yourself, or you may become implicit in a multiple person tragedy. Especially when considering work in confined spaces, it’s seldom a singular death but rather a body count as worker after worker enter the space attempting in vain to rescue one another. Proper maintenance of the correct kit, thorough risk assessment, competence and all the other variables mentioned in this article should negate this issue, but still, don’t blindly assume safety. If you spot a hazard, or think something may not be accounted for then check before starting a job; it’s everyone’s responsibility to maintain a safe worksite.