Lung cancer, asthma, and kidney disease are just a few examples of what can happen when workers aren’t protected from breathing air contaminated with toxic chemicals or dusts.
Respirators protect workers from breathing hazardous air; they are tested and regulated to ensure a high level of protection to users - much higher than a cloth face covering, hobby mask, or even a medical or surgical mask.
If respirators are needed, then the information, rules, and resources provided here will help you get started on the right path forward.
Deciding when a respirator is necessary and what kind is needed are complex tasks for some businesses. The best way to get started is to:
- Know what’s making the air hazardous and get professional help, if needed, to assess that.
- Consider all possible solutions, not just respirators, to fix the problem.
Maybe, instead of needing to use respirators as a “quick fix”, improving ventilation or changing how work is done or scheduled will take care of the problem (or at least reduce it).
If you aren’t sure how to check for hazardous air or want to know more about possible solutions to fix hazards, guidance is available from the:
- Chemical Safety Basics page
- Fix Workplace Hazards page
Free, professional help is available from an L&I safety & health consultant near you (ask for an Industrial Hygienist consultant).
Some Common User Issues To Know About
As workers adapt to using respirators, some issues may emerge.
When the goal is to ensure correct respirator use, keep it constructive. It could take time, effort, and focused support to turn the corner and get to a place where respirator use is running smoothly for everyone.
Any business, especially one new to respirator use, will learn to appreciate that:
- Comfort is important. While no one likes to wear a respirator, finding the most comfortable style and size among a variety of options provided during a fit testing session will go a long way towards ensuring consistent use. Also, some fit issues may show up after fit testing (e.g., skin irritation or interference with other head gear like welding helmets) so make sure workers know who to ask about getting refitted to a different style or size of respirator and encourage them to do that without fear of retaliation.
- Successful respirator use depends on the user and their supervisor knowing what respirators can and can’t do, how to prevent leak issues, learning hands-on skills such as how to correctly put on and remove the respirator, and what to do if they need to clean & maintain, store, and replace it.
- There are many easy ways to compromise an air-tight seal of an N95 or other tight-fitting respirator, including failing to put on the respirator correctly (creating gaps for leakage) and not performing a seal check to detect any gaps or leakage. Keeping the face-to-mask seal free of facial hair like long bangs, beards, and even stubble may become a daily issue to monitor for most businesses.
- Parts replacement for reusable respirators can easily go sideways if someone isn’t making sure only NIOSH-approved parts are ordered and always available. If the right parts aren’t available, users might use the wrong air purifying cartridges or hoses or attempt to force-fit incompatible parts together with duct tape.
It’s better to proactively monitor for use issues when someone is new to respirator use than to wait until bad habits form (which can be “contagious” in some work settings). If a worker is not consistently using their respirator correctly, and it’s not a comfort issue, they may benefit from refresher training on certain aspects of use. Getting constructive on-the-job coaching from a trusted peer or supervisor, sometimes in another language or by instructional demonstration, will often fix the issue.
When respirators are used, a respirator program is required.
A respirator program describes how your particular business:
- Provides the right respirator for the hazard/s, work conditions, and user
- Ensures workers are medically cleared for use
- Conducts fit-testing to ensure tight-fitting respirators adequately and comfortably fit the user
- Trains users so they know when and how to correctly use, maintain, and replace their respirator
- Uses observations and user feedback to ensure effective use
In workplaces where respirator use is voluntary, a reduced respirator program may be required depending on the type of respirator used.
To learn when respirators are generally required, see WAC 296-841-20015 of the Air Contaminants rule.
To learn about the general requirements for a respirator program, see the Respirators rule, Chapter 296-842 WAC
Other rules pertaining to specific hazards or activities (e.g., asbestos, lead, welding) can also include respirator requirements. We recommend you use the safety topic search to find those rules and any related resources.
If your business could use a boost to get started, the resources below can help.
Do you need a respirator program? Start with one of the customizable respirator templates provided here.
How will you train workers? Training materials provided here will help you cover the basics for respirator users and supervisors. Other resources are provided to help program administrators, trainers, and others who need to rely on a deeper knowledge base for respirators than users and supervisors.
If you are looking for respirator training materials and sample programs related to COVID-19 prevention, see the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) safety topic page instead.
- L&I’s Video Catalogue List (videos to reserve)
- OSHA Respirator Training Videos (English & Spanish)
- Putting On and Taking Off a Mask Correctly (English) (Spanish) 2 minutes (OSHA)
- Respirator Fit Testing (Spanish)(OSHA)
- Respirator Fit Testing Using Sweet and/or Bitter Solutions video 54 minutes (instructional on how to set up and conduct a fit test, U of Cincinnati)
- The Difference Between Respirators and Surgical Masks 6 minutes (OSHA)
Training for Groups
- Respiratory Protection Training Kit (for instructors to customize and use)
- Using Face Masks at Work
Training for Individuals
- N95 Respirator Fit-testing (narrated, self-paced learning for workers)
- Respiratory Protection - An Overview of Respirators (detailed information for trainers or respirator program administrators)
- Respiratory Protection - Module 1 - Dust Masks (narrated, self-paced learning for workers)
- Respiratory Protection - Module 2 - Cartridge Air-Purifying Respirators (narrated, self-paced learning for workers)
- Respiratory Protection - Module 3 - Supplied Air Respirator (narrated, self-paced learning for workers)
Publications, Handouts, Checklists
- Advisory Information for Employees Who Voluntarily Use Respirators, also available in the following languages:
- Checklist respirator program when N95s are used
- Counterfeit Respirators - Misrepresentation of NIOSH-Approval (NIOSH)
- Facial Hair and Respirators handout (WorkSafeBC)
- Information About Respirator Selection and Classification (detailed information for respirator program administrators)
- Medical Evaluation Questionnaire for Respirator Use, also available in the following languages:
- Respirator Use Flowchart for Voluntary & Required Use
- Seven Steps to Correctly Wear a Respirator at Work (OSHA) Describes the steps for properly putting on and taking off a respirator.
- Understanding the Difference (2019) (surgical masks, N95 FFRs, and Elastomerics) (infographic handout from NIOSH/CDC)
- What are Air-Purifying Respirators? (2017) (Infographic handout from NIOSH/CDC)
- Why are annual fit tests required? (2016) (Infographic handout from NIOSH/CDC)
- View Hazard Alerts about Respirators
Safety Plan or Program Templates
- Sample Respirator Program (template for customizing)
- Sample Respirator Program Spanish (template for customizing)
- Sample Respirator Program for Voluntary Use (template for customizing)