Dangerous airbourne contaminants are everywhere, whether you work in construction, manufacturing, mining, or firefighting. More than a nuisance, exposure to dust, gases and vapors can lead to serious, life-threatening diseases.

We know a “one-mask-fits-all” is not an efficient approach, but sometimes safety professionals have trouble identifying the best solution to fend off the hazard. If you’re in the process of reviewing your respiratory program or starting from scratch, here are a few guidelines to consider in respiratory PPE selection.

Considering the use of respiratory protective equipment

A COSHH risk assessment (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002) is required to select the correct respiratory protective equipment at work. This should be adaptable and fluid to accommodate any changes that may arise. 

Before you consider establishing or reviewing your current respiratory program, these questions need to be addressed:

1.       What are the contaminants present in the environment and what is the concentration?

2.      Is the level of the contaminants within the approved Workplace Exposure Limits or above?

3.       Is there a written respiratory program and is it up to date?

4.       Have all workers had a medical evaluation completed?

5.       Have all workers been fit tested with the appropriate respirator?

The written respiratory protection program should follow these steps:

1.       Respiratory Selection – hazard identification and concentrations of contaminants

When starting the process of selecting a respirator, focus on the contaminant.  After establishing the presence of hazardous substances in your workplace, you need to determine if you’re dealing with a particulate hazard, a gas or vapour hazard, or a combination of these. 

In general, the use of disposable masks is recommended when the workplace contains a particulate hazard, such as dust or fibres. 

A half mask or a full mask should be used, for example, when painting, because painting materials can produce organic vapours. A half-mask like Honeywell‘s North® HM500 Series Half Mask, fitted with gas and vapor cartridges and filters, is capable of keeping these heavy fumes under control.

Honeywell HM502 Half Mask

 For tasks which release dangerous fumes like welding, workers generally use a tight-fitting mask with a P3 filter. This is, however, a situation where PAPRs can also be considered. Their battery-operated “blower” units and integrated filters use a motor to draw air through the filters, providing workers with continuous airflow.

2.       Medical Evaluations – must be completed prior to first use and fit test and may be ongoing for specific contaminants.

Prior to selecting a respirator, workers must complete a medical evaluation to ensure they can safely use a respirator. For most applications, this is done for every new hire. Certain contaminants, such as respirable crystalline silica, may require more frequent medical evaluations. The medical evaluations can often be done quickly and without leaving the workplace by completing an online questionnaire. Contaminant specific medical evaluations are typically done in person as they may involve chest x-rays, pulmonary function tests, and more.

3.       Fit Testing – required initially, every two years and when face or respirator model/size changes

Once a worker is medically cleared to wear a respirator, they must be fit tested to determine that the respirator fits properly against their face.

Qualitative fit testing includes methods that use a challenge agent like Bitrex©, or Saccharin. These methods require first confirming that a worker is sensitive to these challenge agents. The test then involves exposure to the challenge agent while wearing the respirator with appropriate filters or cartridges. If a worker then smells, tastes, or reacts to one of these challenge agents while wearing their respirator, it can indicate a poor seal or leak. 

Quantitative fit testing involves various methods to provide a measurable fit factor for the worker. Quantitative fit test methods provide several benefits for using these more accurate methods. Many industries use these types of testing as a standard with qualitative being the exception. In addition to the increased peace of mind of a more accurate test, faking these tests are also much more difficult compared to the qualitative versions. Finally, one of the most significant benefits would be when using a full-face respirator. Quantitative fit tests provide full-face respirators with an assigned protection factor of 50 compared to a protection factor of 10 with qualitative tests.

4.       Training – to include all aspects of wear. 

People need to be medically evaluated and trained to ensure they understand how to put them on, as well as their protective limitations.

5.       Proper care and use of respirators – routine and emergency use.

If the respirator gets damaged, or soiled, workers need to leave the work area and inform supervisors about the issue. 


Take these guidelines into consideration when setting up a respiratory program and selecting appropriate respiratory protective equipment. 

Disclaimer: The information provided through Greenham Pulse is for general guidance only and is not legal advice. Greenham Pulse is not a substitute for Health and Safety consultancy. You should seek independent advice about any legal matter.