Constructing clean air

Published: 17th Dec 2013

Everyone has the right to breathe clean air at work, but the health of many people is at risk because of inadequate control measures, including the absence of correct respiratory protective equipment (RPE).

Most work related respiratory diseases are caused by inhaling dusts, mists, gases or fumes. Those affected are generally employed in industries such as construction, foundries, chemicals, printing or rubber. The population in the Middle East is at high risk of respiratory illness because of increased urbanisation, more reliance on motorised transport and traffic congestion issues, extreme weather conditions such as dust and sand storms and the fast expanding construction and manufacturing industries that pollute the skyline. According to research respiratory infections were the second most common non life threatening condition in the United Arab Emirates during 2010, and accounted for 15 percent of all visits to healthcare facilities in the area. There are no hard facts or estimates as to how many people in the Middle East die because of past exposure to hazardous substances, but in the UK it is estimated that around 12,000 people die every year as a result. In 2010 the UK led by example and launched the ‘Clean Air? Take Care!’ campaign, which has now been rolled out across Europe. The campaign aims to raise awareness of the importance not only of buying the correct RPE, but of wearing it properly, as failure to wear equipment properly can render it useless. With the support of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF), campaign packs were compiled to help the key messages to reach the target audience in the most effective way. If we can get people to wear their face masks correctly, replace their filters regularly and avoid making any modifications themselves to their respirators, we should begin to see a reduction in deaths from avoidable occupational respiratory diseases.

Respiratory safety options

RPE can be divided into two major classes according to the basic principle by which protection is given to the wearer. The two classes are: • Face masks with filters and powered respirators, that take in contaminated air from the workroom, and filter or clean it before it is inhaled. All such devices are called respirators • Air-fed hoods and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), which deliver uncontaminated air from an independent source to the wearer Basic good practise requires employers to provide suitable information, instruction and training for employees. Where RPE is used this means that everyone who is involved in the use of the equipment should be appropriately trained. The wearers must be trained in the use of the equipment, how to wear it and what its limitations are. People who are involved in maintaining, repairing and testing the equipment and selecting it for use will also need training. Training should include elements of theory, as well as practise in using the equipment, and should be carried out in accordance with the recommendations and instructions supplied by the RPE manufacturer.

Ensuring efficacy

Effective maintenance of RPE is essential to ensure that equipment continues to provide the degree of protection for which it was designed. Maintenance should only be carried out by a competent person using proprietary spare parts. The use of different parts may invalidate approvals. Records of examination should be kept for at least five years. Maintenance should include: • Cleaning • Disinfection Examination • Repair • Testing • Record keeping With respirators, it is vital to use the correct filter to remove contaminants such as dusts, sprays and fumes. Never use respirators in confined spaces, or areas of low oxygen levels or very high contaminant levels commonly found in confined spaces such as sewers, tanks, pits and flues. When using breathing apparatus, you must use breathing-quality air from a source such as an air cylinder or an air compressor – and check its quality at least every quarter of a year.


RPE should only be used as a last step control measure if all other systems fail. For example, eliminate the task, replace the materials with safer ones, change the process or put in physical barriers before even contemplating RPE. How do you select the right RPE? You should have information about the wearers, hazards, hazardous substances, the tasks to be performed, and the environment in which RPE is to be used. Once you have all this information, it should help to select the correct type of RPE for the task. Read and follow manufacturers’ instructions. Make sure the RPE face piece fits the wearer every time it is used, the item of RPE is tested and checked for correct functioning before use, and that it is cleaned and stored correctly after use and is maintained regularly. If you get this wrong the equipment is useless. The use of ineffective protection can lead to ill health and possibly death. This not only impacts on the workers, but also on the businesses that employ them.

Safeguarding health

Some of the common health problems caused by breathing in hazardous substances are diseases including cancers, asthma, and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases, allergies and sensitisation. Hundreds of thousands of workers around the world develop lung problems and cancer each year, because they breathe in too much dust, fumes, or other airborne contaminants at work. Research by Great Britain’s Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) on influencing the implementation of RPE programmes in the workplace, has shown the main issues to be lack of knowledge and training, poor maintenance and storage, together with poor supervision and enforcement. Even though RPE might be adequate, often the suitability for the individual was not, hence the importance of face fit testing. Recommendations from this research include the need for companies to: • Have a targeted communications strategy for RPE • Support managers in the implementation of the RPE programmes • Work closely with intermediaries; for example, suppliers and insurers Other research has been carried out by the UK-based Institute of Occupational Medicine (IOM). The research provides an evidence-base for factors influencing the use, or non-use, of RPE in the workplace, and how well RPE programmes are currently implemented. The findings stress the influential role of management for RPE programmes to be successful. The provision and use of suitable RPE is, of course, the last option in the ‘hierarchy of controls’. Both elimination and substitution are the first options, followed by isolation and local exhaust ventilation – removing airborne contaminants at work before people can breathe them in. IOSH has provided development funding to help distribute new local exhaust ventilation systems (LEVs) course material for trainers and advisers. Experienced professional development trainers will receive briefing, customised training material and deliver it through a series of training sessions to share key messages in their workplaces.

Assessing performance

All over the world, including the Middle East, assigned protection factors (APFs), play a vital role in improving the selection of adequate RPE. APFs are an expression of performance based on the ratio of two variables: the measured concentration of a contaminant inside the respirator face piece cavity, and the measured contaminant concentration outside the respirator face piece. The relationship between these two variables can be expressed not only as a protection, but also as the penetration or efficiency. APFs are the level of protection that a properly functioning respirator is expected to provide to properly fitted and trained users. An APF of ten for a respirator means that a user could expect to inhale no more than one-tenth of the airborne contaminant present. The higher the APF, the greater the protection. The debate surrounding APFs continues by manufacturers and end users alike. At present, new standards for RPE are currently being developed under the umbrella of the International Organisation of Standardization (ISO), hence there is no time like the present to reassess the suitability of APFs. To explain, the APF set for each type and class of RPE was based, as far as possible, on the level of protection which had been reported in studies measuring the performance of that type and class of RPE – as defined in European Standards – in workplaces. For the purposes of setting APFs for devices complying with European standards, it was necessary to draw parallels between European standard classifications and American devices. Other countries have gone through a similar process in relation to their own national regulations – and they have not always come up with the same answer. Mike Clayton from the HSL explains it well in a recent article entitled ‘Have RPE Will Travel’, in Health and Safety International Magazine: “A UK based construction company sets up a production process in competition with other EU and US manufacturers. The company’s process is similar to its competitors. Having implemented the legally required hierarchy of control there is still a residual respiratory hazard and RPE has to be worn. “The outcome of the risk assessment requires that a device with an APF of at least 50 is needed to reduce exposures down to safe levels. In the US and other EU countries a filtering device can be considered to provide this level of protection, such as a full face mask or a powered full face mask respirator. “In the UK, however, there are no filtering devices with an APF higher than 40 – because full face masks and powered full face mask respirators are only assigned an APF of 40 – and therefore the only solution is to deploy air-fed suit or demand breathing apparatus. This increases the burden on the end-user, who is forced to implement a different and more costly and complex RPE programme. This obviously disadvantages UK companies and could also possibly be a barrier to investment in UK based production.” APFs are a particular problem for multinational companies who are prevented from using the same control measures for the same work in different countries. The lack of a harmonised approach to workplace performance studies and the derivation of APFs have been responsible for the huge differences in the assigned protection factors that we currently have.

Seeking harmony

As part of the suite of new ISO RPE standards currently being written, a new selection, use and maintenance standard is under development. One very important subject that the responsible ISO committee is having to tackle is the variance in the APFs across the globe. Without a harmonised system for the development of APFs, a new approach for assigning a ‘protection factor’ to RPE is currently being considered and follows on from the more robust total inward leakage requirement. What this boils down to is to prevent inhalation of hazardous substances by workers the correct selection and use of RPE is essential. There is too much to be done for any one player or organisation to handle. Internationally agreed and coordinated initiatives and actions are needed for progress to be made. Published: 17th Dec 2013 in Health and Safety Middle East