After the Storm

Jan. 1, 2006
After the dust and debris have settled from devastating natural disasters, such as the recent hurricanes in the Gulf Coast region, cleanup must begin.

After the dust and debris have settled from devastating natural disasters, such as the recent hurricanes in the Gulf Coast region, cleanup must begin. To avoid further tragedy during cleanup and recovery, workers should consider the following 10 tips about respiratory protection:

  1. Always read the manufacturer's instructions. Unlike many products that you may think you know enough about already, respiratory protection has many important warnings and instructions that users must heed before wearing a respirator in a hazardous area. You may be surprised at what you learn about the proper use of a respirator from the manufacturer's instructions. In fact, some manufacturers also offer training on respirators on the Web — check out for an example.

  2. Use the proper type of protection. What's an N95 respirator? You may have seen the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend an N95 respirator for light exposure to certain contaminants. What does “N95” mean? N95 respirators are a class of air-purifying dust respirators that are 95 percent efficient or greater against a non-oil particle that is 0.3 microns (that's about 300 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair) or greater in size. The “N” relates to the non-oil based aspect of the test, while the 95 relates to the efficiency of the filter. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is the government agency that certifies respirators.

  3. Use higher filtration efficiency where needed. OK, then what's a P100 respirator? P100 respirators have filters that are oil-proof, and are nearly 100 percent efficient — they're actually certified to be 99.97 percent efficient against the same size particle as the N95 respirators. These high-efficiency respirators are needed for more toxic dusts. P100 filters can be identified by their magenta color (often interpreted as shades of red, pink, or purple, depending on manufacturer). This color can be on the label, the cartridge/filter itself, or even the entire filtering facepiece respirator.

  4. Don't use unapproved masks for cleanup. If a mask has only one strap, by law it is not an approved respirator. That doesn't mean that all two-strap respirators are approved, but it does increase the likelihood that you have an approved mask. To be sure, look for the word “NIOSH” on the mask. NIOSH stands for National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Having that word on the respirator mask or cartridge means that the mask has been certified by this government approval agency.

  5. Position the two respirator straps properly. Some people want to use only one of the straps of the two-strap respirator. That's a big mistake. The two straps work together as a system to help keep the mask's sealing surface properly contacting the face. In fact, the bottom strap should go around the neck, while the upper strap should be fitted at the crown of the head. Putting these two straps together in the same place negates the effectiveness of the facial seal, reducing the protection afforded by the mask.

  6. Charcoal cartridges don't protect from dust. Charcoal cartridges without an attached dust filter will not prevent small dust particles from reaching the lungs. And dust masks or respirators with particulate-only cartridges will not remove gases or vapors. Always use the proper protection for the job. Many manufacturers offer combination cartridges that have dust filters combined with charcoal filters to help protect you from both exposures.

  7. Observe respirator time use limitations. Some people don't realize that there is a time use limitation on N95 respirators. All N95 respirators are approved for continuous or intermittent use for only up to eight hours. In contrast, P100 respirator filters have no time use limitation; they should be replaced when breathing becomes difficult. Never attempt to clean respirator filters, as this could damage the filters. Replace the filters/masks when they have reached the end of their useful life.

  8. Men must be clean-shaven to wear a respirator. Respirators work by sealing tightly to the wearer's face, and anything that prevents that will reduce the protection provided by the respirator. The reality is, even if a respirator has highly efficient filter media, the mask will only filter as well as the beard on a man's face (which is not very well) if that beard interferes with the seal of the respirator.

  9. Always perform a fit check every time you wear a respirator. You can perform a positive or negative fit check on most respirators when you don them. A negative fit check is when you gently block off the openings to filters, or cover the respirator filtering facepiece, and then inhale to collapse the facepiece. Hold your breath for 10 seconds — if the mask doesn't come back out, you've got a pretty good seal. If it comes back out, readjust the facepiece and repeat the process. Likewise, a positive fit check can be performed on a cartridge-type respirator. To perform a positive fit check, cover the exhalation valve and gently blow out. The respirator should “puff out” on the face, but keep the gently exhaled breath contained within the mask's facepiece.

  10. Consider added features. You may be doing this cleanup job for quite awhile, so consider added features that could improve your comfort. For example, some respirators have one-way exhalation valves that allow the hot, moist air (put your hand to your mouth and breathe out for an example of this air) to leave the mask, but prevent the contaminated air from coming back through the valve. For improved comfort and/or fit on some faces, you may want to consider masks with adjustable straps or foam sealing surfaces that may better accommodate smaller faces.

John Shields is director of sales for Pittsburgh-based MSA Safety Works.