Respiratory Protective Equipment - advice for workers

Respiratory protective equipment (RPE) is a type of personal protective equipment (PPE) that protects people from breathing in substances hazardous to health. This fact sheet is for workers who use RPE at work.

Effects of breathing substances hazardous to health

Airborne substances hazardous to health can be in dust, mist, vapour or gas form (eg wood dust, welding fumes, solvent vapours). You may or may not be able to see these in the air.
If you inhale these you can become unwell. Depending on the substance, the effects can be immediate or long term.

Common health effects from breathing substances hazardous to health may include headaches, forgetfulness, drowsiness, feeling dizzy and sick, mood changes, and eye and skin irritation.
Long-term effects include sleep disorders, memory loss, cancer, organ damage, fertility problems and death.

Who provides RPE?

The person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) who directs the carrying out of work must provide you with RPE, unless:

  • another PCBU provides it or
  • you genuinely and voluntarily chose to provide your own RPE and the PCBU is satisfied the RPE is suitable – however, you may change your mind at any time and require the PCBU to provide it instead. If you do this, you must give the PCBU reasonable notice.

PCBUs must not charge you for anything done or provided for health and safety – this includes RPE.

When do you need to wear your RPE?

You need to wear RPE when you’re doing work where you could breathe in substances hazardous to health.

The PCBU should explain to you why RPE needs to be worn.

You must use or wear RPE in accordance with any information, training or reasonable instruction given by your PCBU. You must not intentionally misuse or damage the RPE.

Choosing suitable RPE

The PCBU must ensure RPE:

  • is suitable for the work (and its hazards), is a suitable size and fit, is reasonably comfortable and compatible with other PPE that needs to be worn
  • is kept clean, hygienic and in good working order
  • is maintained, repaired or replaced so it continues to minimise the risk.

The selection of RPE will usually require expert help. The PCBU must get your views when deciding which RPE to use.

If you wear RPE for extended periods, talk to the PCBU about what the reasonably comfortable RPE options are.

RPE must be appropriate for the size of your face. In addition, some types of RPE (such as negative pressure respirators – those where you suck air through a filter cartridge) must have a tight seal around your face to be effective.

The PCBU will arrange a facial fit test to ensure your RPE fits properly. A fit test checks the seal between the respirator and your face by using a substance that you can smell or taste, or a special piece of equipment that tests the air inside the mask. For negative pressure respirators, an annual facial fit (or more often if needed) is required.

Using RPE

The PCBU must provide information, training or instruction to you about how to correctly use, wear, store and maintain RPE. You should be told the reasons why the PCBU requires you to wear RPE, and what the limitations of the RPE are.

You must use or wear RPE in accordance with any information, training or reasonable instruction given by the PCBU.

It is important that you only use RPE that has been fitted to you. Don’t share with others. If you use different RPE for different tasks, make sure you’re using the right RPE for the task. Don’t use negative pressure respirators in low oxygen environments and remember particulate filters don’t provide protection against gases.

Don’t take RPE off when inside a hazardous area – even for a short time.

For face-pieces that need to fit tight

If you’re using RPE that needs a tight fit always check it before entering a hazardous area. There are two ‘fit checks’ that you should do.

[Image] Man pressing respirator towards his mouth and nose with one palm for positive pressure fit check
Positive pressure fit check

Positive pressure fit check

  1. Block the exhalation valve with the palm of your hand.
  2. Gently breathe out and hold for about 10 seconds.
  3. Check to see if the respirator is bulging slightly.
  4. If the respirator remains bulging and there are no leaks between the face and the respirator, the respirator fits properly. If leaks are detected, readjust the straps and check again for a proper fit.
Negative pressure fit check
Negative pressure fit check

 

 

 

 

 

Negative pressure fit check

  1. Block the exhalation valve with the palm of your hand.
  2. Gently breathe out and hold for about 10 seconds.
  3. Check to see if the respirator is bulging slightly.
  4. If the respirator remains bulging and there are no leaks between the face and the respirator, the respirator fits properly. If leaks are detected, readjust the straps and check again for a proper fit.

  

 

 

 

If you can’t get your RPE to fit properly talk to the PCBU as you may need to get another size or make.

Facial hair and stubble (even one day’s growth) make it almost impossible to get a good seal between your face and RPE. If you have a beard, you should talk to your PCBU about other  forms of RPE that do not rely on a tight face fit. Jewellery, glasses, long hair and makeup can also compromise face fit.

If your safety glasses fog up, there is a leak on the top of the respirator.

Checks for powered air purifying respirators (PAPRs) and supplied air respirators

  • Before using PAPRs and supplied air respirators check that all the hoses are connected properly.
  • For PAPRs, check that the battery is fully charged.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations.
  • Stop working if the airflow rate drops or any of the warning devices activate.

Cleaning RPE

The PCBU must provide information, training or instruction to you about how to correctly  clean RPE. You must tell the PCBU when you become aware your RPE needs to be cleaned or decontaminated.

It is very easy to damage the sensitive inhalation and exhalation valves.

You should:

  • clean RPE after each use (since cleaning RPE can be tricky, your PCBU may arrange for specialist cleaning)
  • follow the instructions from your training and the manufacturer’s instructions
  • use the recommended detergent and disinfectant as some harsher products can cause damage
  • rinse RPE well to prevent skin irritation.

Note: Disposable RPE should not be cleaned.

Maintaining RPE

The PCBU must provide information, training or instruction to you about how to correctly maintain RPE. You must tell the PCBU of any RPE damage or defect that you become aware of.

You should:

  • inspect your RPE regularly for signs of damage
  • check the straps for breaks, tears and loss of elasticity
  • check the inhalation and exhalation valves are working
  • replace particulate filters if there is an increase in resistance when breathing, if they are damaged or if they’re past their service date
  • replace gas filters when scheduled
  • for PAPRs and supplied air respirators, check the connections and settings
  • check the battery charge and flow-rate for powered devices.

Storing RPE

Your training must cover how to store your RPE. If it doesn’t, follow the RPE manufacturer’s instructions.

Also, you should:

  • store your RPE in a clean dry place, away from dust, oil and sunlight – RPE should be stored so that it doesn’t get crushed
  • keep gas and vapour filters in containers or bags with air tight seals – this is so the moisture in the air does not get adsorbed onto the filter material.

Health monitoring

If you use RPE or other PPE at work the PBCU may require you to take part in a health monitoring programme. Health monitoring involves ongoing health checks to see if your work is harming your health:

  • Testing for health effects from substances that you breathe often involves a lung function test. You only need health checks that are relevant to the hazards at your work.
  • An occupational health professional with experience in health monitoring should carry out the health checks.
  • Your PCBU should seek your views when selecting the occupational health professional.
  • You should receive the results of your health checks.

The PCBU should use the findings of the health monitoring programme to guide improvement of control measures.

Note: A PCBU may also carry out exposure monitoring. Exposure monitoring is used to find out if workers are being exposed to a hazard at harmful levels. Exposure monitoring is done by having workers wear personal monitoring equipment as they do their job. It can also be done periodically or without having workers wear monitoring equipment under

some circumstances (eg to test the effectiveness of controls).

Worker checklist

  • The PCBU has provided me with RPE and explained the health risks that it will protect me from.
  • I have been facial fit tested for my RPE.
  • I have been trained how to use my RPE and store it.
  • I understand that I am not to share my RPE with others because the RPE given to me has been fit tested for my use only.
  • With the PCBU’s help, I will complete a regular cleaning, maintenance and storage routine for my RPE.
  • I will visually inspect my RPE daily and do the positive and negative pressure tests to ensure there is a complete seal before using it in a hazardous area.
  • I have read and understood the manufacturer’s guidelines for my RPE.
  • I am aware of the hazards from the substances I am working with. I know what to do in an emergency such as a spill or first aid incident.

Further information

Respiratory Protective Equipment – advice for businesses