July 2008, Vol. 20, No.7

Safety Corner

Safety Corner

Respirator Use and Practices

Brent Doney, Mark Greskevitch, Dennis Groce, Girija Syamlal, and Ki Moon Bang

In September 2003, the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics published a report, Respirator Usage in Private Sector Firms, 2001, based on the Survey of Respirator Use and Practices. The survey gathers information on respirator use from 40,002 randomly selected U.S. establishments. Specific data collected include the types of respiratory protection used by workers at an establishment, types of respirator fit tests performed, and the presence of substances that prompted the decision to use respiratory protection.

The survey findings raised questions regarding respirator usage practices and how these practices compare with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) respiratory protection standard (29 CFR 1910.134) and NIOSH Respirator Selection Logic 2004 recommendations.

This article focuses on information from the respirator use and practices survey collected from establishments in the electric, gas, and sanitary services industry — U.S. Office of Management and Budget Standard Industrial Classification 49 — which includes water supply, sewerage, and refuse systems. It is important to note that public-sector (federal, state, county, and city) facilities were not covered in the survey and had 20 million employees.

Findings and Discussion
Approximately 22.4% (about 5193) of the establishments in this classification used respirators for required purposes in 2001. This percentage was much higher than the 4.5% of establishments with respirator use in all private industry. Moreover, employees in the electric, gas, and sanitary services industry are more likely to use respirators than employees in the “all private industry” classification as a whole (10.3%, compared to 3.1%).

Among the types of respirators used, air-supplied respirators were used in 12% of electric, gas, and sanitary services establishments, compared to 0.7% of all private industry establishments. Air-supplied respirators are an important component of protection when entry to potentially oxygen-deficient atmospheres, such as tanks and manholes, is required. For example, hydrogen sulfide can be immediately lethal at high concentrations without adequate respiratory protection. Air-supplied respirators are also important because spray painting and sealing of tanks and pipes can result in exposures to isocyanates, which are a common cause of work-related asthma.

While the survey design does not allow determination of specific substances within the electric, gas, and sanitary services industry, the survey results provide such information for its parent industry, which is transportation and public utilities. There, dust, silica dust, solvents, and paint vapors are the substances for which respirators were most frequently used (see Figure 1, below). Examples of other hazards for which respirators were used in transportation and public utilities are asbestos, welding fumes, hydrogen sulfide, lead, chlorine, acid gas, oxygen deficiency, and carbon monoxide.

Figure 1. Number of Transportation and Public Utilities Establishments Using Respirators To Protect Employees From Specified Substances

Respiratory Protection Program Quality Indicators
However, improperly using or maintaining respirators could lead to a sense of false security. Each indicator listed below is an important part of an effective respirator program. If the answer to any of the questions below is “No,” it may indicate that an operation’s overall quality of respiratory protection is inadequate, and improvements may be needed.


  • Does the program include a trained respirator program administrator?
  • Has management adopted a written respirator program that determines how respirators are used?
  • Does the program include written procedures for maintaining respirators?
  • Are wearers of tight-fitting respirators fit-tested?
  • Are employees assessed for medical fitness to wear respirators?
  • Does the program provide training regarding the need, use, limitations, and capabilities of respirators?
  • Do written procedures include a periodic evaluation of the effectiveness of respirators used at the establishment?
  • Are air-line respirator couplings incompatible with other gas systems at the establishment?
  • Does the program require use of the manufacturer’s user instructions or NIOSH certification labels to adjust the airflow for air-line respirators?
  • Is there a written changeout schedule for air-purifying gas or vapor filters?
  • Are dust masks (filtering-facepiece respirators) used to protect only against dusts?

As Figure 2 (below) shows, the survey found that, overall, 71% of respirator-using establishments had three or more indicators of a potentially inadequate respiratory protection program. In the transportation and public utilities industry, the number dropped to 53%. The electric, gas, and sanitary services subcategory performed better still, with only 36%, or an estimated 1880 establishments, having three or more indicators. However, still more than a third of the establishments had indicators. Because of the potential for confined-space entry, oxygen deficiency, and high concentration of hydrogen sulfide, it is critical that workspaces are carefully air-monitored and ventilated, and that proper respiratory protection is used under the guidance of a written respiratory protection program required by OSHA and recommended by NIOSH.


Figure 2. Percent of Respirator-Using Establishments With Specified Number of Indicators of a Potentially Inadequate Respirator Program

Respiratory Protection Program Consultation Service
Those who suspect their respiratory protection program is in need of improvement should consider contacting the free OSHA confidential consultation service available for small businesses in every state. (Wastewater utilities are usually considered the equivalent of a small business.) OSHA consultation service contacts are available at www.osha.gov/dcsp/smallbusiness/consult.html. OSHA also has a Small Entity Compliance Guide for the Revised Respiratory Protection Standard available at https://www.osha.gov/Publications/3384small-entity-for-respiratory-protection-standard-rev.pdf.

Outside consultants also can help troubleshoot respiratory protection programs. The American Industrial Hygiene Association (Fairfax, Va.) publishes a database of consultants indexed by specialty area that is accessible at www.aiha.org/Content/AccessInfo/consult/consultlisting.htm.

Brent Doney is a certified industrial hygienist, Mark Greskevitch is an industrial hygienist, and Girija Syamlal and Ki Moon Bang are epidemiologists at the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Division of Respiratory Disease Studies. Dennis Groce is a certified industrial hygienist at EG&G Technical Services Inc. (Pittsburgh). The findings and conclusions presented here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

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