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Selecting the Right RPE

What to consider when supplying the correct type of Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE)

A risk assessment can help assess whether all other reasonably practicable measures to eliminate or control exposure have been introduced. Where exposure to hazardous substances such as dusts, mists and vapours cannot be avoided, you should protect workers with adequate and suitable RPE.

RPE is available in a range of different styles to ensure workers are protected against exposure to hazardous substances. In addition, one size facepiece does not fit all - everyone has a different face shape and depending on gender, ethnicity, build and facial features will determine the RPE that best fits the individual.

When selecting types of personal protective equipment, you must ensure you protect workers with the correct RPE. Have you considered...

  • The hazardous material as well as the amount in the air (exposure)
  • The form the substance is in, whether it is a gas, particles or vapour
  • The type and duration of work being carried out
  • The right size and fit for the wearer - for tight-fitting facepieces, selection should include a fit test
  • Any specific worker requirements, including compatibility with other PPE or an existing need for glasses

To ensure the wearer is protected, RPE must be both adequate for the specific risk and suitable for the wearer as well as the task and environment.

Our simple product selector guide is designed to help you make the right choices for the most common airborne workplace hazards.

Selecting RPE Adequate Against The Exposure Hazard

Identifying the hazardous substance in your workplace through a risk assessment can help you protect workers with the correct RPE for the specific risk. Knowing what products are used and the activities carried out by your employees will help you understand the protection required.

Have you considered:

  • Do you have data sheets for the contaminant you’re trying to protect against?
  • Have you had air monitoring done and determined the level of contaminant?
  • Is it a confined space and / or IDLH? (Immediately Dangerous to Life & Health)

Hazardous substances can exist in different forms. Identifying which hazards and in what for they contaminate the air will help you select the right RPE.

Deciding on the Right Filter

There are various types of respirators, but all rely on filtering the air breathed in to reduce the risk of hazardous substances reaching the lungs. Respirators can either be made of a filter material, have a filter fitted to it or use a motor to pass air through the filter that may be separate from the facepiece. View our range page to learn more about types of respiratory protective equipment we have on offer.

The filter material will differ depending on the hazardous substance and its form. For example, liquid particles in the form of fine sprays and mists, and solid materials including dusts, fibres and fumes require a particle filter. There may be some situations where multiple hazardous substances contaminate the air, however gas or vapour filters do not protect against particles and particle filters do not protect against gas or vapour, therefore a combination filter should be considered for the different substances present.

close up of woman wearing a Sundstrom reusable full-face respirator

Filter Protection Explained

All RPE has an Assigned Protection Factor or APF. The APF rating indicates how much protection the RPE can provide to the user, provided that the wearer is trained to use it, it is fitted correctly and functioning properly. Depending on the hazard and length of exposure will help you to select the right level of protection and determine the required APF.

Selecting RPE Suitable for the Wearer, Task and Environment

As well as ensuring the RPE you provide is adequate, it must also be suitable for the individual wearer, the tasks your workers are undertaking and the environment they work in.

Have you considered the wearer?

  • Do any of your workers have facial hair or markings that could prevent a good seal between the wearer’s face and RPE?
  • Do they wear spectacles or contact lenses?
  • Do any of your employees have pre-existing medical conditions?

Some medical conditions may prevent workers wearing any or certain types of RPE, for example asthma, skin allergies or heart problems. Arranging medical assessments will help to determine whether the individual is able to wear the selected PPE.

Have you considered the task?

  • What tasks are carried out?
  • How many hours per day are the wearers expected to wear RPE?
  • Do your workers need to wear any other PPE i.e., hard hat, eye protection or harnesses?

Other PPE can potentially interfere with RPE and can impact some components working correctly. If different forms of protective equipment are required, it is important that they are compatible with each other, or combined equipment should be provided to ensure compliance.

Have you considered the environment?

  • How many RPE wearers do you have on site?
  • What kind of temperatures do your employees work in?

If RPE is required to be worn continuously or for long periods, it is important that the RPE is comfortable, especially if worn in cold or humid conditions. Uncomfortable RPE can lead to workers incorrectly wearing or even removing respiratory protection exposing themselves to possible life-changing respiratory illnesses.

Useful Tools for Selecting the Right RPE

Gathering information about the wearer, the substances they use and the tasks they undertake through this RPE Selector Tool will help select the right RPE to protect you and your employees. This tool was developed by the Health and Safety Executive, NHS Health Scotland and Healthy Working Lives (HWL) base on HSE’s RPE guidance HSG53.

Respirators vs. Surgical Masks

A respiratory protective device is designed to achieve a very close facial fit and very efficient filtration of airborne particles. Its purpose is to protect wearers by reducing the risk of inhaling hazardous substances and are classified as FFP1, FFP2 and FFP3.

A loose-fitting disposable mask also known as a medical or surgical mask creates a physical barrier between the wearer’s nose / mouth and contaminants. Its purpose is to prevent respiratory droplets from the wearer contaminating other person’s or surfaces and are classified as Type I, Type II or Type IIR.

These types of masks are made up of 3 ply construction and stop the wearer from infecting the surrounding environment from larger respiratory droplets during exhalation (inside to outside) and take into account the efficiency of bacterial filtration. They are not effective at protecting the wearer from airborne disease.

two healthcare workers wearing ppe and surgical masks talking in a hospital
Mask Bacterial Filtration Efficiency (BFE)
Type I 95%
Type IR 95%
Type II 98%
Type IIR 98%

The 'R' denotes that these masks are also splash resistance and protects the wearer against splashes of blood or bodily fluids.

Download our expert advice sheet to assist in the selection of whether a face mask or respirator is required and the differences between the two.

Respirators Selection Guide

Selecting and specifying the appropriate respiratory protective equipment can seem daunting with so many factors to consider. Once you've chosen which type of RPE is adequate and suitable, see our step-by-step guides for selecting the correct respirator.

Disposable Respirators

Stage 1 - Which protection factor suits your needs?

There are three main filtering efficiency classes: FFP1, FFP2 and FFP3. The abbreviation of FF stands for 'filtering facepiece' and P 'particulate' referring to the rating of the filter protection, with the higher number corresponding to a better filtering efficiency. Their use is mandatory in working environments where substances have been assigned a WEL. View the EH40/2005 workplace exposure limits for a comprehensive list of workplace exposure limits for substances use with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002.

FFP1 Respirators FFP2 Respirators FFP3 Respirators Speciality Respirators
Protection Factor APF 4 APF 10 APF 20 APF 4 or 10
Exposure Reduction Factor Reduces exposure to airborne particle by a factor of 4 Reduces exposure to airborne particle by a factor of 10 Reduces exposure to airborne particle by a factor of 20 Depending on the APF, reduces exposure to airborne particles by either a factor of 4 or 10
Protection Level Minimum / low-level protection Moderate level protection Higher level of protection Low to moderate protection with some models providing nuisance protection for example odour

Stage 2 - Choose valved or non-valved

A non-valved disposable mask requires the wearer to inhale and exhale through the same filter material. Valved masks have an exhalation valve which closes on an inhale and opens on an exhale. This reduces exhalation resistance so moisture and heat can escape.

Stage 3 - What style?

Disposable respirators can be cup-shaped or fold-flat depending on the wearer's preference. Respirators need to fit tightly to the face so the straps should always sit behind the head and never use ear loops (even with a fastener).

Construction worker on site wearing an arco dust mask drilling into a brick wall and creating dust.

Reusable Respirators

For workers who require RPE for longer jobs, reusable respirators are generally more comfortable to be worn for longer periods of time. Opposed to some disposable masks that provide nuisance vapour, reusable respirators can also be used with gas filters.

Stage 1 - Choose between a half or full-face mask

There are two types of reusable respirators: half-face masks and full-face masks. Depending on what the job entails or if any other PPE is required can determine whether a half or full-face mask is best suited. A full-face mask has twice the APF than a half mask and is apt in protecting your entire face where your eyes may need protecting from hazards that can cause irritation or protection from splashes or spray. Half masks however are better suited if head or hearing protection is required alongside RPE or if the wearer requires prescription glasses.

woman being face fit tested with a reusable half-mask at an Arco Safety Centre

Stage 2 - Interchangeable filters for protection against combined hazards

Where dust and gases occur at the same time, filters can be combined. The dust filter can be easily fitted onto the front of any gas filter with certain pre-filters protecting and extending the life span of the main filter.

Stage 3 - Maintaining and servicing

To ensure the assumed level of protection is provided, it is important that employers train workers to correctly use, wear and maintain RPE to industry standards.

To learn more about implementing a respiratory management programme click here

Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPR)

Powered air systems provide the highest level of respiratory protection from hazardous airborne substances and therefore recommended for tasks with a longer duration or frequent use. It is important that a PAPR is not used in conditions that are immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH).

Stage 1 - Select a PAPR power unit

PAPRs incorporates a battery-powered motorised fan to draw air through a filter and a range of interchangeable filters for protection against combined hazards.

Stage 2 - Choose a head top

Available in a variety of masks, visors and hoods, choose a suitable head top to suit your workers' application and specific working environment. When combined with a loose-fitting head top, powered air purifying respirators are suitable for workers with facial hair as they do not rely on a tight seal and therefore face fit testing is not required. Head tops also have independent ratings which can affect the overall APF, so must be considered if using a powered air purifying respirator.

lab worker wearing a 3M loose-fitting head top holding up a petri dish

Stage 3 - Choose additional components for specific applications or environments

Some PAPR can offer integrated eye, head and face protection, but should not be solely relied on or chosen for this reason. If additional breathing tubes or filters are required, ensure they are compatible with one another to provide the correct level of protection.

Face Fit Testing

For all tight-fitting facepieces, face fit testing should be conducted to guarantee the RPE fits an individual's facial features and seals adequately to their face. It may also provide the wearer with options of unsuitable facepieces that should not be used.

Initially, all employees should be face fit tested during the selection of RPE and then every two years or sooner depending on whether:

  • An individual's facial features change, for example weight loss / gain
  • The RPE manufacturer or model changes
  • If other PPE is worn
Arco professional conducting a face fit test on woman wearing a disposable face mask

The wearer must be clean shaven every time a facepiece is worn, including when fit tested, as beards and stubble prevent a tight seal around the mask and therefore will not provide adequate protection. If RPE does not fit, it will not protect the wearer from exposure to hazardous substances.

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