Occupational Safety and Health Administration OSHA

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Respiratory Protection eTool

Respirator Basics

Almost all elements of the respiratory protection program affect respirator users and their knowledge of the principles of respiratory protection is integral to an effective program. Elements that have a more direct impact on the user include knowledge of selection criteria, medical evaluations, procedures for proper use, fit-testing, and maintenance procedures. Proper selection and, if appropriate, fit testing of tight fitting face pieces will assure that the respirator will provide adequate protection against the contaminants that affect use. Medical evaluations are necessary to determine whether the user is fit to wear a respirator without adverse health effects. Training on procedures for proper use and maintenance will assure the wearer that the wearer is using the respirator in a safe and healthful manner.


Employees need to be medically cleared to wear respirators before commencing use. All respirators generally place a burden on the employee. Negative pressure respirators restrict breathing, some respirators can cause claustrophobia and self-contained breathing apparatuses are heavy. Each of these conditions may adversely affect the health of some employees who wear respirators. A physician or other licensed health care professional operating within the scope of his/her practice needs to medically evaluate employees to determine under what conditions they can safely wear respirators.


The proper functioning of respirators and ensuring that the devices themselves do not pose a hazard to the user require a regular maintenance and cleaning schedule. In general, respirators should be inspected for basic function prior to each use and cleaned as often as necessary to prevent the occurrence of unsanitary conditions.


All respirators that rely on a mask-to-face seal need to be annually checked with either qualitative or quantitative methods to determine whether the mask provides an acceptable fit to a wearer. The qualitative fit test procedures rely on a subjective sensation (taste, irritation, smell) of the respirator wearer to a particular test agent while the quantitative use measuring instruments to measure face seal leakage. The relative workplace exposure level determines what constitutes an acceptable fit and which fit test procedure is required. For negative pressure air purifying respirators, users may rely on either a qualitative or a quantitative fit test procedure for exposure levels less than 10 times the occupational exposure limit. Exposure levels greater than 10 times the occupational exposure limit must utilize a quantitative fit test procedure for these respirators. Fit testing of tight-fitting atmosphere-supplying respirators and tight-fitting powered air-purifying respirators shall be accomplished by performing quantitative or qualitative fit testing in the negative pressure mode.


The requirement for a respirator program to be in writing entails a great deal of pre-planning of the implementation steps for the program. These steps include selection, medical fitness, maintenance, training, fit testing, use, program evaluation, etc. This pre-planning is by design and intended to ensure the respirator wearer is safely using the proper respirator. The program evaluation facet allows for continuous improvements or changes to be made, as necessary, to maintain a protective program.


Employers who allow their employees to wear respirators on a voluntary basis when not required by OSHA or the employer must implement limited provisions of a respiratory protection program. When a filtering face piece respirator is all that is used, the employee must be provided a copy of Appendix D. For all other voluntary users, an additional written respirator program that covers medical fitness and proper maintenance procedures must be implemented.


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