Inhalation Hazard Protection for 5 Million Workers

Respiratory protection rounded out the top five OSHA most frequently cited violations of fiscal year 2019. The top 10 list is released every year, and respiratory protection makes frequent appearances. OSHA reported 2,450 violations adding up to $1.5 million in fines. According to OSHA, the Respiratory Protection Standard (CFR 1910.134) encompasses the control of occupational diseases caused by breathing contaminated air, and applies to general industry, shipyards, marine terminals, longshoring, and construction. All employers (including contractors) have a responsibility to protect the respiratory health of their employees. In service of this, OSHA requires employers to implement appropriate engineering control measures (enclosure of the operation, ventilation, and/or elimination or substitution of less toxic materials), and/or effective selection and use of respiratory protection devices.

An estimated 5 million workers are required to wear respirators for protection against inhalation hazards. In addition to immediate dangers, workers face future damages from the long-term effects of exposure to inhaled hazards, including cancer. If respirators are being used, the respirators must be appropriate to whichever hazardous airborne dusts, fogs, fumes, mists, gases, smokes, sprays, or vapors your employees are encountering (including oxygen-deficient environments). They must also be fit tested to ensure they are an appropriate fit to the wearer.

Along with the use of respirators comes a litany of other requirements including the development and implementation of a written respiratory protection program overseen by a specific and qualified individual, medical clearances to determine that an employee can safely wear a respirator, and procedures for proper use, storage, and maintenance of respirators. This list is not exhaustive. The development and maintenance of a respiratory protection program requires research and dedicated time.

Some of the most common violations stem from employers distributing respirators without having a respiratory protection program in place. Others happen when companies believe they have executed a program but have neglected one or more pieces outlined in the standard. One of the most commonly overlooked aspects of an implemented program is respirator fit testing. Respirators are not one size fits all and neglecting to have the respiratory protection devices fitted to the individual employee greatly reduces respirator effectiveness. All tight-fitting respirators used in the workplace require annual fit testing. An important word here is “annual.” Fit testing is not a one-and-done aspect of a respiratory protection program. The requirements and approved procedures for fit testing are outlined in Appendix A of the standard. Other emerging issues may point to an increase in respiratory protection violations. A decision published September 11, 2019, by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the Respiratory Protection Standard also requires that employers adequately evaluate all appropriate respiratory hazards before determining if a respirator is required and before selecting an appropriate respirator. This decision has solidified an expanded purview of the standard. The court concluded that the Respiratory Protection Standard requires employers to proactively assess potentially harmful atmospheres rather than performing the evaluation after a determination has been made that respirators are necessary. This opinion opens the possibility of OSHA making greater use of the Respiratory Protection Standard in the future to enforce allegedly harmful airborne contamination that is not addressed by or below a current permissible exposure limit. Previously, concerns such as this would have been cited under the General Duty Clause. This ruling along with the continued failings in the area may spotlight respiratory protection program issues from the regulatory side. Don’t be a part of the $1.5 million dollars in fines: select and fit test your respirators appropriately.

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