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16 November 2021

Lung disease from exposure to airborne hazards at work kills thousands each year. Kevin Williams, urges workers to face fit test their Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE)

EVERY YEAR in the UK 12,000 people die of lung disease cause by past exposure to airborne hazards at work, according to figures from the Health and Safety Executive. RPE is designed to keep workers safe but research shows that up to 50% of RPE users may still be breathing in harmful substances. The main reasons for this are a poor fit, insufficient training, incorrect RPE for the hazard, poor maintenance and inadequate storage.

To reduce exposure risks and save lives, all wearers of tight-fitting or close-fitting RPE must receive a face fit test for each variety of masks they wear. Ideally, face fit testing should be carried out at the mask selection stage so that employers can ensure the respiratory products issued meet the needs of the environment and the wearer. 

Fit2Fit, an RPE Fit Test Accreditation Scheme established by the British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF), recommends repeat face fit testing every two years or sooner depending on the risks. For example, face fit testing should be repeated any time the wearer loses or gains weight, has significant dental work, or gains scars or moles because a change in facial features may impact where the mask seal meets the face. Repeat face fit testing should also be carried out if a business switches to a new mask manufacturer or model.

In addition to face fit testing, other factors must be addressed. First there is the question of specification, whether the RPE is appropriate for the environment. The RPE used must be adequate to control the hazards relating to the worker’s tasks and their unique working environment. For example, it is recommended that continuous wear time for tight-fitting (unpowered) RPE is less than an hour, after which the wearer should take a break. Otherwise, the RPE can become uncomfortable to wear, leading to unintentional loosening of the mask or, in the worst case scenario, users actually removing their masks in the work area to make themselves more comfortable. 

Then there is the question of training. Education and training play a significant role in avoiding hazards and minimising exposure. Employers should ensure their employees are aware of the steps they need to take to protect their safety. This includes selection, routes of exposure, harm caused as well as wearing and using the equipment.

Lastly there is the issue of maintenance. Thorough maintenance, examination and tests should be carried out at least once a month. Employers must ensure all staff are taught how to use RPE correctly, how to clean it, how to maintain it to industry standards, how to wear it and when it should be replaced. 

With the right fit, training and maintenance, the risk of workers developing deadly respiratory diseases can be reduced or eliminated. The RPE technicians at Arco Professional Safety Services deliver Fit2Fit accredited services and tailor-made learning packages to provide employees with the training needed to begin face fit testing, ensure compliance and protect worker health.

Kevin Williams is respiratory services manager at Arco Professional Safety Services and sits on the BSIF Fit2Fit Technical committee.