Irritants such as fumes, gases, vapours and dust can have grave health consequences if not taken seriously by employers. When it comes to dust and other airborne media, disposable respirators can provide an essential layer of protection.
There are certain industries where employees may need to wear a respirator in order to limit their exposure to harmful material. For example, coal miners can develop pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease, a potentially fatal lung condition caused by coal dust.
In 2015, for instance, two men from the Carborough Downs Coalmine in Queensland were diagnosed with black lung disease. According to a news report from local media outlet Daily Mercury, a co-worker admitted that when he started working in the coalmine two decades earlier, he and his colleagues hardly wore respirators. Since then, Vale, the owner of the Carborough Downs coalmine, has become a leading advocate of workplace safety in mines.
There are similar risks in the road and civil sector where wearing a disposable respirator is a key protection measure.
“Things such as sandstone, tasks to do with masonry, cutting blocks and even cement that has a lot of silica content are hazardous to the lungs at a certain level,” says Terry Gorman, Senior Occupational Hygienist in 3M’s Personal Safety Division.
“The classic example is the Sydney road tunnels. These are often bored through sandstone, which is full of silica and released in the cutting operations.”
He says the results of being exposed to silica – a major component in sand and rocks such as sandstone and granite, and other common building products – is something workers won’t necessary experience immediately. “It’s something people don’t realise they may be exposed to,” says Mr. Gorman. “Coal miners know as soon as they blow their nose and see the black stuff they’ve been exposed to, whereas guys in construction or roads, not so much. Some of them will be quite aware they’re getting a dose of it and others won’t, but their lungs will be affected according to the exposures received.
“Without normal control or safety measures you’re commonly not talking years, you’re talking decades before seeing the signs,” he adds. “If there’s been enough exposure to silica, it can result in lung cancer, which is at the high end of the spectrum. By the point it becomes significant, you can’t reverse the damage.”
Mr. Gorman says there are commonly quite stringent control measures used in multiple industries these days, with many contractors and organisation well-informed on the benefits of protecting their workers through safety equipment such as disposable respirators.
Despite their seemingly simple design, Mr. Gorman says there are important things that need to be considered when using disposable respirators. “When we talk broadly about respirators, disposable or other, we need to focus on correct fitting and how this is checked and tested across the industry,” he says.
Male employees, for instance, need to be clean-shaven for respirators to fit appropriately and effectively.
Improper fitting due to stubble allows small gaps to appear between the respirator and skin, which means contaminants can enter airways and lungs. Employees also need to ensure that long hair is tied back and jewellery is removed so that it does not interfere with the face seal.
Mr. Gorman says people are often surprised that facial hair is something they need to consider when fitting a respirator. “It’s not immediately obvious to people, but once you explain it to them they get it.”
Respirators also need to be designed with the breathing resistance as low as possible.
The effects of high breathing resistance include sweat and heat, which can cause the respirator to move on the user’s face, compromising the fit on the wearer and adding effort to work. Filter performance is also an important consideration. A blocked filter can cause airflow issues and lead to wearer discomfort.
3M’s Aura series of disposable respirators offer an array of standard features rarely seen in similar products. These include low breathing resistance filter technology, a cool flow valve that removes heat build up and helps to minimise fogging over eye wear, a sculpted nose panel that aids with a good face seal and a three-panel design that will fit many faces shapes and sizes.
“One of the main focuses of the 3M Aura range is on comfort, and we’ve dedicated a lot of research and design towards producing masks that fit almost any type of face,” says Mr. Gorman.
“No one can make one mask to fit everyone, but the flat fold Aura fits more people than many other masks out there.”
One of the options available for use with the Aura series is the 3M FT-10 or FT-30 fit test kit. The kit is designed to check the face-to-respirator seal on any particulate respirator or gas/vapour respirator with a particulate filter.
Mr. Gorman says a fit test is the recommended way to assess whether the respirator is suitable for the individual.
The comprehensive kit comes with detailed instructions on how to accurately test whether or not the mask fits the individual wearer effectively.
The kit works by spraying a sweet or bitter solution into the hood environment. If the wearer does not taste the spray while doing a number of simple exercises, an acceptable fit has been proved. “It sounds simple, but the process requires more awareness than people think,” explains Mr. Gorman.
To further educate and raise awareness on the importance of the mask fitting process, 3M provides supplementary services including training on how to do the fit test, an overview of the respirator’s features and how to use and fit it correctly. It also provides information on overall respirator performance and the risks associated with not wearing a respirator correctly.
“These products are industry-proved. If you follow the instructions and fit them correctly, they will do what they say,” says Mr. Gorman.