When work conditions involve harmful air contaminants, the best solution is often to engineer the problem out. Other measures, including elimination, substitution and administrative controls can also be helpful. Sometimes though, exposure to airborne hazards can’t be avoided, and the only effective way to control the risk is respiratory protection.
But it’s not that simple. Investing in the wrong type of respirator or using or maintaining it improperly will result in a zero return on investment with no impact on risk reduction.
In fact, respirators can be the least effective option for controlling exposure to hazardous air contaminants in your workplace. It is expensive to equip workers with respirators in the first place. Add to that the cost of providing suitable initial and on-going training and fit testing. There will also be substantial maintenance costs when respirators and filters or cartridges need to be replaced. Sometimes installing a ventilation system in the first place might prove less expensive in the long run.
And, of course, respirators must be selected appropriately. Choosing from the many types of respirators available on the market requires an understanding of the nature of the hazard, as well as the properties and potential concentrations of the air contaminants that require control. A professional Occupational Hygienist (CIH) is a specialist in assessing and controlling exposure to harmful substances in the workplace.
After investing in respiratory protection to protect your employees, it would be unwise not to make sure they are giving you the protection you're paying for. Air contaminants can easily bypass the filter elements of a poorly fitted respirator. Workers need to be trained to properly wear a respirator, including positive and negative pressure fit checks every time they put it on. Poorly maintained respirators often have missing or defective components that render them useless.
A respiratory protection program that ensures proper selection, maintenance and use of respirators is critical in controlling exposure to risk. In fact, when respirators are needed in the workplace, WorkSafeBC requires the employer to select them in accordance with CSA Standard Z94.4 (Selection, Use and Care of Respirators). And the employer must have an effective respirator program that includes written procedures for selection, care and use, as well as instruction and training, fit-testing and written documentation. This program must be reviewed annually. Failure to implement an effective program not only places your employees at increased risk of exposure to harmful air contaminants, it also increases your company’s risk of WorkSafeBC citations and substantial fines.
As WorkSafeBC’s representative, Peter Gilmour helped develop the current edition of CSA Standard Z94.4. Peter knows what an effective respirator program looks like, and he can help your company develop and implement an effective respirator program that complies with WorkSafeBC requirements, and with CSA Standard Z94.4.