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Respiratory Protection in the Countertop Industry (Part 1)

Posted on 21 July 2015 by cradmin

respiratoryprotection_indexForklifts and falling slabs are the primary safety concerns for countertop fabricators, but in addition to safety, employers are responsible for the health of the employees in their shops. Health concerns in the workplace are too numerous to mention in a single article, but many of them can be boiled down to one particular element: respiratory protection.

However, the concept and application of respiratory protection alone can be complex, so we are presenting the topic in two parts. In Part 1, we will explore respirators in general and some of the federal and state regulations regarding their use, and in Part 2, coming next month, we will explore silica dust in greater detail.

Respiratory Protection in the Workplace

Simply touching or coming into close contact with volatile compounds can cause serious medical issues, and most workers try to pay close attention to what gets on their skin, but when the dangers are airborne, they can be impossible to avoid. Whether the danger is airborne silica dust from cutting stone or solvent vapors from adhesives or coating, the only real protection is to wear a properly fitting respirator designed specifically for the hazards.

Today, it is estimated that around 5 million workers in 1.3 million workplaces are required to wear respirators while on the job in order to comply with all federal and state laws. Respirators are designed to protect workers from harmful substances in the air or from environments with insufficient oxygen. Airborne hazards may cause any number of serious and life-threatening medical conditions, including cancer, disease, respiratory impairment and lack of oxygen.

The federal rules for respirators and when they must be worn by workers are spelled out in OSHA Standard 29 CFR, Part 1910.134 – Respiratory Protection, Occupational Safety and Health Standards. However, a training and reference sheet produced by OSHA makes it easy for employers to understand the requirements under this standard: Major Requirements of OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Standard 29 CFR 1910.134.

Reducing Respiratory Hazards

Under OSHA’s respiratory protection standard, employers are required to provide a safe and healthy working environment free of respiratory hazards. When such hazards are present, the employer is required to implement a three-step process in order to control them.

  1. Identify all of the respiratory hazards in the workplace and at specific job sites. This includes considering the sources of respiratory hazards in raw materials, processes and end products and reviewing safety data sheets for chemicals used.
  1. Evaluate employee exposure levels to each identified hazard. Obtain data about employee exposure by taking personal and locational air samples and comparing it to data from industry studies, trade associations or manufacturers.
  1. Eliminate or reduce exposure to hazards. Respirators are expensive, incur ongoing costs and reduce productivity. Because of this, it is much more desirable and cost effective to eliminate or reduce respiratory hazards through the following means rather than submit to the use of respirators and as the only means of protection.
  • Engineering controls – Ventilation, exhaust ducts, process isolation
  • Work practice controls – Wet-cutting, etc.
  • Administrative controls – Reducing the number of employees or the amount of time employees are exposed to specific hazards, substituting toxic materials for non-toxic materials

Requirements of the Respiratory Protection Standard

If you, as an employer, cannot completely eliminate the need for respirators in the workplace, which is the respiratory protection standard, it is recommended that you take the following four steps in implementing an effective respiratory program:

  1. Educate yourself on respirators and respiratory health.
  2. Seek the help of outside experts. Free and paid assistance is available from several sources:
  • State and federal OSHA consultation services
  • Workers’ compensation carriers
  • Trade associations
  • Private health and safety consulting firms
  • Respirator manufacturers, distributors and vendors
  1. Develop and implement a written respiratory protection program.
  2. Establish a system to evaluate the program, ensuring it remains updated, efficient and effective.

Developing an Effective Respiratory Protection Program

med_evaluationsIf airborne contaminants are present in your workplace, it is not enough simply to supply respirators to workers in the hazardous areas. You must develop a full respiratory protection program. The program must be put in writing and describe how all of the following will be accomplished:

  1. Choose the appropriate respirators for each employee in each hazardous zone.
  1. Conduct medical evaluations for employees. All employees required to wear respirators must complete an OSHA Respirator Medical Evaluation Questionnaire and undergo a physical examination by a licensed physician trained in occupational health. Remember, the questionnaires and results of the examination are confidential medical records that should be kept by the doctor or healthcare organization. In most cases, it is a violation of the law to store these records on premises where they can be accessed by unauthorized personnel. However, employers should receive evaluation documents from the doctor that should be kept in your records.
  1. Fit-test employees who are required to wear tight-fitting respirators. Equipment and services ror fit-testing may be available at local occupational health clinics.
  1. Observe employees to ensure they are using their respirators correctly at all times, while performing regular work and during emergencies.
  1. Clean, maintain and replace respirators as necessary to ensure they are always working properly. Further details of this requirement can be found within the OSHA rule.
  1. Train employees on respiratory hazards and how to protect themselves from such hazards.
  1. Evaluate the respiratory protection program in order to keep it updated for new materials, processes and environments.

Types of Respirators

typesWhen choosing respirators for your employees, it is imperative to understand that you cannot use just any respirator. Several different types of respirators have been developed to protect people from specific respiratory hazards in various environments. It is up to you to discover and evaluate which hazards your employees are being exposed to and which respirators protect against these hazards.

Respirators are organized into categories based on several factors, and one of these is the inlet covering, which is the part of the respirator that forms a protective barrier between the contaminated air and the wearer’s respiratory tract. Tight-fitting respirators include a facemask that creates a seal over the face while loose-fitting respirators typically cover the user’s entire head and sometimes the shoulders.

Respirators can further be classified as air purifying and atmosphere supplying. Air purifying respirators include a filter, canister or cartridge for specific air hazards, and different filters are needed for each class and type of contaminant. Non-powered air-purifying respirators are activated when the worker inhales, but powered air-purifying respirators make it easier to breathe. Types of air-purifying respirators are as follows:

  • Particulate-removing respirator
  • Gas-and-vapor-removing respirator
  • Combination respirator for removing particulates and vapors

Atmosphere-supplying respirators provide the wearer with breathable air from a source outside the immediate environment. The three major types of atmosphere-supplying respirators are as follows:

  • Supplied-air respirator (SAR) – Supplies breathable air from a stationary source through a flexible hosing system.
  • Self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) – Supplies breathable air from a portable source.
  • Combination respirator – Can be used as an SAR or SCBA.

Respiratory Protection Resources for Employers

Respiratory protection is one of the leading occupational health topics in the United States, and dozens of resources are available online to help employers comply with the federal standard and state regulations and to protect the health and lives of their employees. While the following list is not exhaustive, it provides a good starting point for anyone who wishes to implement a new respiratory protection plan or audit an existing plan.

If you have a state OSHA agency, it will be your greatest resource for information specific to your location. However, the federal OSHA branch and several states also offer valuable information on the subject.

Be on the lookout for next month’s CountertopResource.com Health & Safety Watch, featuring Part 2 of our series on respiratory protection: Countertop Fabrication and Silica Dust Exposure.

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