Complying with OSHA's Respiratory Protection Standard

A respiratory protection expert offers savvy advice on sorting out the sometimes confusing requirements of OSHA's standard.

The OSHA respiratory protection standard, 29 CFR 1910.134, published on Jan. 8, 1998, was a long-overdue and generally welcome replacement for the agency's original standard promulgated in 1972. The new standard became effective April 8, 1998, and compliance with all provisions of the standard was required by Oct. 5, 1998.

Some of the new standard's requirements are obvious and reasonably self-explanatory, while others are rather subtle and open for interpretation. Probably the most progressive aspect of the rule is that it standardized regulations for respirator use in all industries, including maritime, construction and general industry. However, at the same time and for whatever reasons, OSHA abandoned the employees of the health care industry by allowing respiratory protection for M. tuberculosis to be provided by following the discarded 29 CFR 1910.134 regulations that reflected information and technology from the 1960s.

I have practiced in the field of industrial hygiene for the past 38-plus years and have, for most of those years, devoted my efforts to the specialty of respiratory protection. During my career, I have identified three major problems that contribute most heavily to respirator program inadequacies and respirator misuse:

1. Probably the most serious of those is misinformation provided by consultants and other health and safety professionals who do not know what they do not know. This is compounded by the fact that the problem is not limited to industrial types but is also present within government agencies such as OSHA and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

2. The second problem involves misinterpretations and misinformation from respirator distributors and overzealous manufacturer representatives.

3. Finally, a problem somewhat unique to the user community is the continuing attempt to establish a cheap or inexpensive respirator program.

My intent is to raise issues that will cause others to place themselves into the scenario and make their own decisions. If you don't know, isn't it best to find the correct answer before acting on the issue? I am not implying that I know all of the answers, because I don't. However, knowing what I don't know prevents me from giving bad information that may compromise the health of respirator users. One thing I do know is the extent of my legal liability for providing inadequate or inaccurate information. Remember these three issues as you read the rest of this article.

The new standard's requirements, in many instances, are written in such a way as to leave considerable room for interpretation and confusion. Prior to beginning your effort to interpret the regulation, take the time to read and understand the definitions in subparagraph (b). This is a new section, and some of the definitions are truly OSHA-unique in that they are found nowhere else. Other definitions have been adopted from other standards and regulations, such as American National Standards Institute and NIOSH, and have been slightly changed, while still others have been adopted without change. In any case, the definitions, as they appear in the new regulation, are OSHA's interpretations of the terms and are legally enforceable.

In this article, I will attempt to identify the major changes in respirator program element requirements and at least briefly discuss the implications. I hope to identify the majority of the changes that are creating the most frustration. I will also proffer my opinions on some of the requirements. You may not agree with my interpretations and opinions. We can even agree to disagree and still communicate. So, where do you go to get the interpretation? Ultimately, the responsibility of definition will rest with you.

Voluntary Respirator Use

OSHA has, for the first time, defined a category of respirator use as "voluntary respirator use." Beware! Although OSHA's intent is good, this categorization could lead to big legal liability. I am told that OSHA's intent was to require that at least sanitary respirators be used by individuals with at least a bit of training in cases where they otherwise could not cite based on a hazardous substance concentration below the permissible exposure limit (PEL). That is not a bad consideration in and of itself. However, based on the fact that there is no such thing as a "comfortable respirator" per se, and based further on the fact that the respirator user is requesting a respirator to prevent inhalation of the substance in question, can you, in good conscience, say that the individual is a "normal" individual and not being harmed by that exposure?

I am conservative when it comes to protecting people from exposure to harmful substances. Remember, threshold limit values (TLVs) and PELs are our best state-of-the-art estimates (educated guesses) of the concentrations of various substances to which the "normal, healthy adult" can be exposed within the scientific restrictions of the eight-hour day and 40-hour workweek. Can you identify the normal, healthy adult person? Is a sensitized person normal? Are you aware that the TLVs listed for many of the substances today are tremendously lower than they were with our best estimates 30 years ago? Bottom line, would you want to see the person whom you love the most put into an environment with a hazardous substance, even though the concentration may be below the TLV, while wearing a substandard respirator maintained in a substandard program?

Personally, I find it difficult to define a condition of voluntary respirator use. If there is a definable airborne concentration of a hazardous substance in the workplace and if a person who must enter that workplace requests a respirator, that person will be provided respiratory protection within the confines of the required respirator program. If there is no definable airborne hazardous substance in the workplace, I will not issue respirators!

Perhaps the conservatism that I display is based on the large number of people with occupational diseases who I encounter in my work as an expert witness on respiratory protection issues. Many of these people had substandard respirators maintained in a substandard program because the airborne concentration of the substance of concern was "below the PEL." I've made my decision on "voluntary respirator use." You make yours.

Program Administration

The OSHA regulation explicitly requires that the employer designate a suitably trained respirator program administrator. This person, qualified through appropriate training or experience commensurate with the complexity of the program, will administer or oversee the respiratory protection program and conduct the required evaluations of program effectiveness. I do not believe I have ever seen so many words that specify so little.

Fact: The employer must designate a respirator program administrator. I have been unable to get anyone in OSHA to provide me with a specific list of training or qualification factors for a respiratory protection program administrator. I will proffer my opinion, and you may certainly disagree. Based on the general statement of qualifications in the regulation, these minimum qualifications make sense to me. The program administrator must have a good knowledge of all types of respiratory protective devices (RPD), parts and function of parts on the RPD, and characteristics and modes of operation for RPD. He must be intimately familiar with the requirements of 29 CFR 1910.134, including all program elements and methodology for compliance.


Requirements of the selection section have been specifically expanded to provide guidance to making proper respirator selection. It also gives OSHA more ammunition for citing improperly selected respirators. Read the selection carefully and become familiar with the specifically listed criteria.

Respirators selected for applications that are immediately dangerous to life or health must be pressure-demand, self-contained breathing apparatus with full face piece and certified by NIOSH for at least 30 minutes of service life, or a pressure-demand, supplied-air respirator with auxiliary self-contained air supply and full face piece.

The most problematic regulatory change in selection is the requirement for a NIOSH-certified, end-of-service-life indicator (ESLI) for the gas or vapor contaminant of concern. If there is no ESLI appropriate for the specific application, there must be implementation of a change-out schedule for canisters or cartridges that is based on objective information or data that will ensure that canisters or cartridges are changed before the end of their service life. The employer must describe, in the respirator program, the information or data relied upon for the change-out schedule.

Before you become too excited, let me tell you that this requirement is not, in any way, intended to allow for the use of chemical cartridges or canisters against gases or vapors with poor warning properties. In this case, NIOSH certification of these cartridges and canisters explicitly excludes their use for this type of protection. OSHA has written at least one explanation of the ESLI requirement that states its stand against use of chemical cartridges for protection against gases or vapors with poor warning properties. Stay tuned! We may see more from OSHA on this issue.

Medical Evaluation

The OSHA regulation requires that all users must be evaluated to determine their ability to use the respirator prior to any fit testing or required use of the respirator. There still is no required frequency for re-evaluation.

The major changes are that the evaluation must serve to obtain at least the information requested in specific parts of the questionnaire found in Appendix C of the regulation and that the physician or other licensed health care professional (PLHCP) designated by the employer must perform the evaluations. The first concern is to understand fully the definition of PLHCP from the definition section. Many people who have been administering questionnaires and other evaluations in the past may no longer be qualified to do so.

There still are no defined requirements for specific physical examinations or tests to be performed.

Fit Testing

The fit-testing section of the standard probably is the most changed of all of the respirator program elements. The former regulation did not have a section specific to fit testing and covered those requirements generally under training requirements. If you have kept up with the development and promulgation of the specific substance standards, beginning with the revision of the lead standard in 1982, followed by the asbestos standard in 1986, you will not be surprised by fit-test requirements in the 1998 version of 1910.134. The requirements are basically the same as those found in virtually all specific substance standards and mandatory fit-test appendices since late 1982.

OSHA's Instruction CPL 2-2.29, Subject: 29 CFR 1910.134, (e)(5), Respirator Fit Testing, dated Oct. 27, 1980, gave us some rather specific requirements for fit testing without defining specific procedures or methodology. That CPL, coupled with specific substance standards appendices, actually gave us specific guidance as to what OSHA considered acceptable fit-test requirements and procedures. However, many employers exempted themselves from the requirements based on the fact that they did not deal with that specific substance and, therefore, did not have to perform the more sophisticated respirator fit tests required by those standards.

In any case, we are required to follow these same basic requirements by the new standard. It should be noted that fit-test requirements of the new standard supersede virtually all contradictory requirements found in specific substance standards. You should do your homework, however, and verify this for each instance that affects your respirator fit-testing program.

In general, new fit-test rules require that all respirator users be fit tested. The fit-test requirement applies to all tight-fitting face pieces, whether negative or positive pressure. Fit testing must be repeated at least annually, whenever a different face piece is used, whenever a face piece is suspected of not forming a seal to the user's face, whenever a face piece no longer fits the user comfortably, etc. The fit test must be performed using only OSHA-accepted qualitative or quantitative fit-test protocols and procedures found in Appendix A of the regulation. Qualitative protocols may be used only for fit testing negative-pressure, air-purifying respirators that will never be used for protection factors of greater than 10. Positive-pressure respirators must be fit tested in a negative-pressure mode.

I could devote this entire article to discussion of the respirator fit-test requirements and probably still not have sufficient space to address all of the issues adequately. Take the time to read carefully the fit-test requirements in the regulation and the general requirements for fit testing in Appendix A before you decide whether you are going to do qualitative or quantitative fit tests. Then determine which protocol to use.

Proper fit testing of respirators is neither a simple nor a straightforward task and requires a thorough understanding of procedures and specific objectives. If you have not had specific respirator fit-test training, obtain such training before attempting to fit test your respirator users.

Maintenance and Care of Respirators

The OSHA regulation requires that the employer provide the user with a clean, sanitary respirator that is in good working condition. Respirators must be cleaned and disinfected using procedures in Appendix B-2 of the regulation or procedures recommended by the respirator manufacturer, provided that such instructions are of equivalent effectiveness.

Beware! Procedures of the appendix and most manufacturers require immersion of respirators in a cleaning solution. The appendix procedure specifies using a solution with an appropriate disinfectant or immersing the respirator in a disinfectant after cleaning. Some respirator manufacturer instructions fail to recommend the use of a disinfectant and, thus, are inadequate in ensuring a sanitary respirator.

There is no shortcut to disinfecting the respirator. The use of towelettes, wipes or sprays does not produce a result equivalent to immersion.

OSHA requires that respirators be cleaned and sanitized after use and before being worn again, and after each use in training and fit testing. I have seen a letter from OSHA stating that respirators used in fit testing could be wiped with alcohol towelettes after each fit test and properly cleaned and disinfected at the end of the day. I am inclined to believe this letter was written by a delirious person or a person who did not know what he did not know. I find it hard to believe that the letter writer would take a typical respirator wet with condensed saliva from the exhaled breath, a bit of slimy sputum from a cough and a few nose drippings, wipe it with an alcohol towelette and put it on his face. How about you? Again, there is no shortcut to proper disinfection; you must immerse the respirators in a disinfectant that will not harm the respirator or its parts to reach a satisfactory objective -- a clean, sanitary respirator.

Training and Information

Training and information requirements in the standard have been expanded to specify information that must be provided to the user and guidance on presenting the information. Specifically, OSHA requires the employer to provide effective training to employees who are required to use respirators.

Training must be conducted in a manner that is understandable to the employee and is comprehensive. Training must recur annually and more often, if necessary. The end result is that the employee must demonstrate knowledge of seven specified areas of respirators and respirator use.

Program Evaluation

The employer is required to conduct evaluations of the workplace to ensure that the written respiratory protection program is being properly implemented. This includes involving respirator users in program evaluation by consulting them to ensure that they are using the respirators properly. Also, evaluations will assess users' views on program effectiveness and identify problems. Any problems identified should be corrected.

Darell A. Bevis is the owner of Bevis Respirator Consultants, a respirator training, consultation and expert witness service based in Santee, Calif. He has been involved in respirator research studies and taught respiratory protection at virtually all levels. He can be reached at (619) 596-9539 or via e-mail at [email protected]

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