This article was originally posted at some time between 2015 and September, 2020. It is being re-posted now as part of our website reconstruction. Some of the dates mentioned in this article may reference the time period from which it was originally posted.
I had an interesting conversation with a client at the University of Minnesota about OSHA rules on respirators and respiratory protection. The respiratory protection regulation was revised about 15 years ago, and that revision introduced some concepts that, to this day, are misunderstood by many employers (you can read the rule here). Of these concepts, the most important is the idea of mandatory vs. voluntary use of respirators.
Let’s start from the beginning; employees in many industries have exposure to airborne hazards such as dusts, fumes, mists, vapors, gases, or even Oxygen deficient atmospheres. The employer is required to protect the employees from these hazards, and the primary means of doing this MUST be to reduce or eliminate the hazards through accepted engineering controls such as isolation, elimination, or ventilation. When engineering controls are not feasible, or when they fail to completely control the hazard, or while the engineering controls are being implemented, then and only then, may the employer rely on the use of appropriate respirators. In other words, the use of respirators is permitted only as a last resort.
The first step in this process is always to evaluate the nature and extent of the hazards. You can not possibly implement an effective respiratory protection program (RPP) without knowing this information. This is most often accomplished by having a qualified professional (such as an industrial hygienist) conduct air sampling, and generating a report detailing the findings. Based on those results, the employer will determine if any further action is necessary. It might be necessary at this point to implement a RPP for employees, and as part of that program, to identify whether or not respirators will be required, or voluntary. This will be very important to define, because there are different requirements for mandatory users versus voluntary users.
Here’s a definition of a mandatory and voluntary use that I often use in training:
“Mandatory use” means the use of a respirator is required as a condition of employment. The use of respirators is mandatory when any of the following conditions are present:
- When there is objective evidence that an employee’s exposure to a respiratory hazard approaches, equals, or exceeds an established limit, such as an OSHA Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL), or an ACGIG Threshold Limit Value (TLV);
- When the Respiratory Protection Program (RPP) administrator, a Physician or Licensed Health Care professional (PLHCP) or other qualified safety professional determines based on objective evidence that there is a significant respiratory risk, regardless of exposure levels;
- When supervisory/managerial personnel, choose to require the use of respiratory protection, even when hazards do not approach or exceed applicable limits;
- When an individual chemical label or Safety Data Sheet specifically states that use of respiratory protection is required, necessary, or mandatory; and
- When a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), safety posting, or other such internal, written document indicates that use is required.
Voluntary use means that the use of a respirator is not required as a condition of employment. A person who chooses to use a respirator voluntarily (for example, to provide personal comfort or additional protection) is still covered by certain requirements.
As I mentioned above, there will be vastly different requirements for mandatory and voluntary users. I won’t go into much detail about those requirements today, because frankly, there’s a lot to know and it’s outside the scope of what I want to say here. But here is a quick summary of the differences:
- Written program/policy. Whether your employees are voluntary users, mandatory users, or a mix of both, some level of written program will be required. If all respirator users are voluntary users, then a simple, abbreviated program, which covers only a few key points is required. If you have any mandatory users, then the program must be much more detailed and complex.
- Training. Again, some level of training will almost always be required, and the training must include required content. However, requirements for voluntary users are much more brief, and requirements can be met by providing the employees with Appendix D of 1910.134, here. Training for mandatory users will be much more complex and detailed. As always, be sure that all of your training is adequately documented and never forget to include a summary or outline of training content as part of the training record.
- Medical evaluations. In nearly all cases, some level of medical evaluation will be required for both voluntary and mandatory use. The purpose of the evaluation is to ensure that respirator users do not have medical conditions which affect their ability to safely use a respirator. Examples of these conditions might include Diabetes, hypertension, COPD, etc. I might be slightly off topic with this, but one of the most common misunderstandings about respiratory protection is the idea that medical evaluations must be provided at some fixed interval, say every year or two. While it’s true that there might be some need to re-evlauate employees from time to time, there is no standard interval for this. A Physician or Licensed Health Care Professional (PLHCP) is responsible for determining whether or not this is required, and if so, how often, for each individual employee. In other words, several of your employee may need to be re-evaluated every year, while others may need re-evaluation every five years, and other employees, not at all.
- Fit testing. Fit testing is required for any employee who is required to wear a tight-fitting respirator. It’s required prior to the employee using the respirator, and annually thereafter.
One major exception to keep in mind, is that almost none of the above applies if the only use of respirators in the establishment is the voluntary use of filtering facepiece respirators, such as N-95 “dust masks”.