People from different walks of life wear respirators, either voluntarily or to follow the laws set by authorities. In many cases, they don’t even know why wearing a respirator is so crucial, or how it’s saving them from severe health hazards.
Even worse, inadequate training or learning materials on respirators make things more complicated!
If you are someone who has to deal with dust, fumes, vapors, or gases, you must know the ins and outs of respirators to pick out the best alternative for you, to the least.
When it comes to respirators, you’ll find different options to choose from– ranging from inexpensive disposable ones to reusable ones with options for you to change the filters & cartridges.
In this article, you will learn all you need to know about respirators, the different options available, and which one you should use.
What Is a Respirator?
Simply put, a respirator is a face-worn device, used to protect the wearer in toxic and hazardous atmospheres. If your work makes you visit places where toxic elements are present aplenty in the atmosphere, you should consider wearing a respirator.
Respirators, like face masks, cover the nose and the mouth, forming a tight seal against the face to filter out airborne particles and harmful gasses. Thus, if you are exposed to an atmosphere with the possibility of air contamination, respirators are the best option for safe inhalation.
Types of Respirators
Respirators come in two basic types. The first type is called an air-purifying respirator (APR) and the other one is an atmosphere-supplying respirator (ASR). The level and type of protection provided by each, as well as their design, serve to differentiate them.
The type of respirator you need depends on the contamination level in the atmosphere you are going to be exposed to. Let's look at how these two differ and are used in practical situations so you can find the right respirator for your needs.
Air-purifying Respirators (APRs)
An air-purifying respirator (APR), like the name suggests, removes toxic substances from the air and provides breathable, pollution-free air.
This type also includes particulate respirators which filter airborne particles and gas masks that protect you from chemicals and gases. Thus, air-purifying respirators are utilized in a wide range of industries, including construction, carpentry, textile, medical, and many more.
Atmosphere-supplying Respirators (ASRs)
Atmosphere-supplying respirators (ASRs) supply clean air from an external source. Rather than filtering and detoxification, these respirators provide safe air in the case of an oxygen-deficient environment or when the exposure level surpasses an APR's filtering capacity.
These respirators come in three types– supplied-air respirators (SARs), self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBAs), and– a combination of both– SARs/SCBAs. The first one is connected to an external air source outside the work area. While, with an SCBA, the user can carry their own air supply with them.
Consider scuba diving, where there is no air from which to filter. ASRs are required in situations like these. For a more in-depth look at the various types of respirators available, please check our article on the Types of Respirators.
How Do Respirators Work?
So far, we’ve learned about the basic types of respirators and their use. Basically, they function by either filtering particles from the air, chemically purifying the air, or supplying clean air from an external source.
Now, let’s take a look at how these devices work across several categories.
Particulate respirators are the most basic type available. They are most affordable, simple, and least protective compared to the rest. These types of respirators only give protection against dust and microparticles.
These respirators are classified into nine groups and three series– N, R, and P. Each of these series has three separate levels of efficiency. The N filter effectively filters up to 95% of microparticles, whereas the R series filters up to 97%% and the P series filters up to 99.97%.
They are not highly effective against chemicals, vapors, and high hazard levels. The most known type of this class is the NIOSH-approved “N-95” mask which can filter up to 95% of microparticles (0.3 microns). Often, they are used in hospitals to protect against infectious diseases.
- Filter out dust, fume, and microparticles
- Usually disposable, or come with disposable filters
- Must be replaced if they become discolored, clogged, or compromised
Feel free to check out our take on N95 and KN95 face masks and other respirators that meet the international standard.
Gas Mask/ Chemical Cartridge Respirators
Gas masks or Chemical Cartridge Respirators filter or clean toxic chemical compounds from the air while you breathe. These respirators include a mask or facepiece, and a cartridge or canister. The facepiece is secured to the head with straps to remove any chance of a leak. The cartridge might also contain a filter to remove particles.
It’s important to note that, however, these respirators are effective if used with a correct cartridge or filter for a particular chemical substance or biohazard. You’ll find cartridges that might protect more than one hazard. But there is no all-in-one solution that provides support against every situation. So, always know your hazard before you pick your cartridges.
- Have replaceable chemical cartridges or filters to remove contaminants
- Color-coded along different hazards to help you pick the right one
- Might require more than one cartridge to provide protection against different hazards
Powered Air-purifying Respirators (PAPR)
Powered air-purifying respirators use a battery-powered fan to draw the air to the user through a filter. Naturally, they are easy to breathe with compared with the APRs mentioned above. But you’ll have to fully charge the battery for the respirator to work properly.
These respirators, like the other air-purifying respirators, use the same type of filters/cartridges. Only, you’ll have to know the hazard beforehand and pick the appropriate filter for your respirator.
Self-contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA)
These types of atmosphere-supplying respirators are common among firefighters and scuba divers. They supply clean air from a portable air tank when the air around is too dangerous to breathe. So, you don’t have to worry about filters. The air usually lasts an hour or less depending upon its rating and your breathing rate.
They can also give protection against higher concentrations of toxic chemicals. However, you might need additional protection for the whole body for cases like these. Also, they weigh nearly 30 pounds or more. So, you’ll be needing special training on how to maintain and use such respirators.
For further information, feel free to read our article on when and why to use a respirator.
What Materials a Respirator is Made of?
Respirators are made from several materials across their differing categories. Most of the basic filtration facepieces (dust masks) are made with cloth-like filter materials. In the case of cloth-based filtering for respirators, NIOSH recommendations need at least three layers of filter.
Usually, the facepiece of the respirator is made from silicone, neoprene, and rubber. Rubber and neoprene are rigid and long-lasting. While silicone is known for its comfort, versatility, and ease of maintenance.
Full-face respirators, once again, come with strap belts or ratchet mounts. You can use the harness or belt system respirators under a hard hat. However, using ratchet suspensions will give you the flexibility to adjust, don, and doff easily.
Choosing the Right Respirator
As respirators differ in a wide range of capabilities, it is essential to select the proper respirators for your specific needs in order to avoid any type of health issue.
Always remember, choosing the right respirator depends on the hazardous situation you want to face. After concentrating on the situation, start with the labels. For example, pesticide labels require only one type of respirator– APRs.
If the pesticide label requires chemical cartridges and canisters, which absorb gases and vapors, they’re usually going to require a black color-coded organic vapor (OV) cartridge. Or, If the pesticide label requires a filtering respirator, it will be specified by a letter and a number– like NIOSH-approved N, R, or P filters.
Again, respirators can be divided into three categories by their size. The usual N95 masks are examples of a basic filtering facepiece that covers only the nose and the mouth. Then there are the half-face respirators and the full-face respirators.
Remember, all three of these respirators are air-purifying respirators. However, only the half-face and full-face covering respirators can carry both chemical cartridges and filters. So, make sure whether you need a respirator with chemical canisters or not beforehand.
Also, the respirator you choose should fit properly to your face. Any kind of leak or damage in the respirator might lead to serious health hazards or even death. So, remember to take a fit test before you buy your respirator.
Finally, make sure the respirators you wear are NIOSH-approved. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health is a reputable organization that guarantees your respirators are up to standard and can protect you to the extent that the manufacturer claims.
Don't forget to read our full guide on using respirators in real-world situations to learn more about when to use certain respirators.
Fit Testing for Respirators
Fit testing is imperative to maintain your safety while using respirators. The Worker Protection Standard recommends that respirators must be fit tested once a year, or if your face shape is changed due to any kind of weight changes, accidents, etc.
If your respirator seal isn’t tight enough, you might get contaminated with the toxic air through the leaks around the edges of the face seal. Additionally, the respirator vendor should provide you with the necessary instruction on how to correctly put on the respirator.
Fit-test for a respirator can be done in many ways. Remember, fit testing should always be done by safety and healthcare professionals before you put on one in any hazardous environment. Also, don’t forget to check for leaks and external damages every time you wear a respirator.
For a more in-depth explanation, read our article on how professionals fit-test their respirators.
Cautions and Limitations of Using Respirators
Each type of respirator has its own set of limits and safety precautions, as suggested by the various types. Without adequate care and caution, you may end up doing more harm than good to yourself.
For instance, tight-fitting respirators must have no leaks when it’s attached to your face. So, if you have facial hairs, you’re more exposed to the chance of leakage that can lead to serious health issues.
Again, some respirators do not allow users to speak, but others incorporate speaking pads or electronic communication devices. Some escape respirators also come in a package that must be sealed before being used. As a result, you'll need to rehearse using a practice version beforehand.
Last but not the least, any reusable respirators that have been exposed to a hazardous environment must be cleaned and decontaminated before being reused. As a result, proper training in the use, maintenance, and disposal of respirators is required to ensure overall safety.
If you are wondering when, why, and how to replace your respirator filters? You can give our full post on why and when to replace your respirator particulate filters a read for detailed information.
Respirators Vs Ventilators: Are They the Same Things?
Often people mistake respirators for ventilators, and vice-versa, as both of them deal with breathing. Let’s clear the air about this confusion.
No, they are not the same, and they can’t be used interchangeably!
A ventilator is a machine that medical professionals use to help a patient breathe at times of breathing difficulty. In cases of respiratory diseases, ventilators are used to pump oxygen into the patient’s lungs and remove the carbon dioxide through a tube.
As ventilators create artificial respiration, they are sometimes referred to as respirators. But, the practical use of these two is entirely different.
Always remember that ventilators are machines that are used in medical emergencies, and they can only be suggested by medical professionals.
In contrast, respirators, like face masks, protect you from airborne viruses, particles, or any type of dangerous chemical by filtering the polluted air or giving additional safe air. And respirators can be used by anyone exposed to a hazardous breathing situation.
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: What is the material used in the production of N95 or surgical masks?
Answer: Polypropylene, a synthetic plastic fiber derived from fossil fuels such as oil, is used in the majority of N95 masks. This fiber is often found in raincoats, flexible fabrics, and yoga trousers.
Question: Can everyone wear a respirator?
Answer: No, and not everyone is required to. It is more difficult to breathe through a respirator than it is to breathe in the open air. People suffering from lung disorders such as asthma or emphysema, as well as the elderly, may have difficulty breathing. Claustrophobia may prevent someone from using a complete facepiece or hooded respirator. And, those who have eye problems can face problems with eyesight when using while wearing a mask or a hood. Please get medically evaluated before using a respirator.
Question: Can a gas mask protect me if there’s not enough oxygen?
Answer: Unfortunately, no. There’s no additional air supply in the Air-purifying respirators like gas masks. In these cases, go for an atmosphere-supplying respirator that fits your needs.
Question: Can my cartridge or filter protect me for the long run?
Answer: No. Cartridges and filters have a limited life expectancy. Once outdated, these will not protect at all.
Why Use a Respirator?
Well, you don't have to unless your job requires you to work in a noxious setting with toxic air. But, if it does, we hope you now have a solid grasp of what respirators are and which type you require for your unique requirements.
In this article, we tried to present you with a comprehensive guide to what respirators are, how they function, and when to use them. Please, feel free to check out our other articles while you are here. Thank you for sticking to the end. Until next time, stay safe, wear masks and stay hydrated!