One of the most dangerous aspects involved in working in trade yards and similar sorts of workplaces is issues related to breathing in dangerous substances and materials.

Unfortunately, in all manner of operations from building yards to technological labs, there is a chance that you could breathe in materials which could cause damage either in the short or long term.

Dust, fumes and other particles can all cause health problems for workers and it is essential that employers provide respiratory personal protective equipment (RPE) in order to safeguard their workforce.

However, it's not just a case of buying masks and other forms of equipment in and leaving workers to it; firms need to take the lead and ensure they are doing all they can to protect people.

What is RPE?

There are two forms of RPE: Respirators and Breathing Apparatus.

Respirators are filtering devices which remove particles from the air being breathed in. They can either be powered or non-powered, the former using a motor to work or the latter relying on the person breathing to work the respirator.

Breathing apparatus needs a supply of clean air from an independent source, such as an air cylinder.

There's two main groups of respirators and breathing apparatus, tight fitting facepieces (such as masks) or loose fitting face pieces. The former will require fit testing to ensure a secure, sealed fit to the face. The latter can include hoods, helmets, all-in-one suits or visors but need a form of breathing apparatus to ensure clean air is flowing inside.

What Do Employers Need to Know About RPE?

The first thing that bosses need to be aware of is what processes within a work operation are the most dangerous and require workers to wear RPE.

Three examples of these sorts of tasks are highlighted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), with these being:

  • cutting a material such as stone, concrete or wood
  • using a volatile liquid
  • handling a dusty powder

All of these have the potential to cause health problems for workers but RPE can keep these out and minimise the risk.

The HSE continues: "Workers may also need to work in areas where oxygen levels are low, for example: confined spaces, such as a chamber or tank. RPE is designed to protect the wearer from these hazards."

Other circumstances where RPE is appropriate include providing such equipment for a safe exit in an emergency scenario and also when it is needed, should there be a temporary failure of controls.

Also, if an emergency rescue by trained personnel is being carried out, RPE needs to be made available.

The HSE advises that RPE needs to be right for the wearer, the task, and the environment, so prior research in to models, styles and types is essential.

From then it's all about ensuring there is a good fit, which is a process detailed in the next section, following the adequate maintenance instructions and finally keeping it stored in a safe place.

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