Protecting workers from inhalation hazards has been a concern for more than 2,000 years. As far back as the first century, miners used animal bladder skins to protect themselves from inhaling toxic dust. In the present day, protecting workers from hazardous dust, fumes, vapors, and gases is essential to mitigating the risk of contracting respiratory illnesses. For the workers who are exposed, the perfect situation is to eliminate any possible contact between the worker and the hazard. Where they cannot be eliminated, workers need the right level of respiratory protection. Prevention is critical when it comes to respiratory protection. In many cases, workers without proper protection who are exposed to a respiratory hazard will not necessarily show the signs of damage or disease until years later.
Millions of workers across the globe wear tight-fitting respirators that often serve as a last line of defense against the inhalation of harmful airborne contaminants on the job. Yet, tens of thousands of deaths globally are attributed to work-related respiratory diseases every year. Respirators are frequently used without training or testing, resulting in the leakage of contaminants into the respirator. A major cause of leakage is poor fit. Because of this, the issue of respiratory protection remains a topic of debate and an essential aspect of national and international safety legislation. If a respirator does not fit well, it will not provide the protection required; therefore, respirator fit testing is a critical aspect of workplace safety. People come in all shapes and sizes, so it is unlikely that any one respirator will fit every user. Fit testing ensures that the respirator is suitable for the user.
A fit test uses a challenge agent and a specific protocol to determine the effectiveness of the seal between the user’s face and the respiratory interface of a specific make, model, and size of a respirator. This is vital to ensuring that the RPD is performing correctly and offering the user the maximum level of protection. Many people are unaware of fit testing or may confuse it with either a user seal check or flow testing. Even those who are aware of fit testing may be unsure whether it is a requirement for them. Those who recognize the need to implement fit testing may be uncertain of how to do so. You might need to try different makes or sizes to find one that fits without leaking around the seal. The only way you can know if the seal is good enough is by having a proper fit test. Currently, in many countries, this is also the only way of meeting legal requirements. OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard (1910.134) provides guidance in the United States on how to implement a respiratory protection program and perform fit testing of respirators. It spells out the qualifications of a fit-test operator, specific fit-testing methods and procedures, and requirements for recordkeeping. The reality is that many people across industries are still not aware of the standard or its full requirements. Therefore, it is important to keep respiratory protection on the forefront of safety concerns. Even more important, we need to emphasize the message that effective respiratory protection is not simply a matter of providing a respirator and ticking the performance box, but vitally is about the specific individual using it, the hazards involved, and the effectiveness of the fit it delivers. Properly protecting the breathing of workers is essential as the risk of exposure can be life threatening.