New Survey Finds 3.3 Million Workers Use Respirators

A new survey finds that in the previous year, some 3.3 million employees used respirators, but only just over half of them knew why they were wearing the respirator or were taught how to use it properly.

Results of a new survey conducted in late 2001 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that in the previous year, some 3.3 million employees used respirators, but only just over half of those workers knew why they were wearing the respirator or were taught how to use it properly.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and other agencies will use the results from "Respirator Use and Practices" to develop new recommendations for the use of respirators in workplaces and design new research projects to improve the effectiveness of respirators.

NIOSH funded and helped design the voluntary survey with BLS. BLS administered the survey, tabulated the responses and reported the results, which include:

  • In the 12 months prior to the survey, respirators were used by 3.3 million employees in 281,800 workplaces, which represent 3.1 percent of all employees and 4.5 percent of all workplaces in the United States.
  • Dust masks were the most commonly used respirator, comprising 71 percent of all respirators used.
  • Seventeen percent of workplaces reported using air-supplied respirators in the past year.
  • Paint vapors and dust were the most common agents that air-purifying respirators were worn to protect against, while paint vapors and solvents were the most common agents air-supplied respirators were worn to protect against.
  • In 59 percent of workplaces, employees were trained to understand the use and limitations of the respirators they wear. Another 32 percent reported that employees followed the respirator manufacturers'' instructions, while 9 percent reported that training is not required because it is not needed.
  • Just over one-third (34 percent) of workplaces reported that they determined the use of respirators by a written program adopted by management. Almost 23 percent reported that supervisors determine respirator use based on employee input and job characteristics. Twenty-two percent reported that employees determine respirator use based on job characteristics, while 20 percent of employers said that respirator manufacturers'' written instructions determine how respirators are used.
  • Material Safety Data Sheets were used by 57 percent of the establishments to determine the appropriate type of respirator.

NIOSH will use the survey to get a better understanding of the patterns of respirator use in workplaces. For example, the survey provides new data on how often respirators are used voluntarily; how often they are required; the types of respirators used; the types of agents that respirators are intended to protect against; the existence and features of written workplace programs on respirator use; and the usefulness of respirator labels and instructions.

The survey covered U.S. companies in the private sector that use respirators as a component of ongoing occupational safety and health programs. Respondents included employers from manufacturing, construction, mining, agriculture, health care, and services.

By providing current data on respirator use, the survey will help NIOSH recommend changes for more effective administration of respirator programs, including recommendations on educational and informational initiatives. The results also will help NIOSH identify methods to modify its respirator certification program if appropriate, and areas where further research related to certification may be needed.

NIOSH conducts research to improve respirator performance and use at its National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory. Through a longstanding testing and evaluation program, NIOSH certifies respirators used to protect workers as part of an employer''s overall occupational safety and health program. Under new certification rules that build on the established program, NIOSH also will approve respirators for use by emergency responders for chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological exposures.

Further information on NIOSH''s respirator certification and research programs is available on the NIOSH Web page at www.cdc.gov/niosh/npptl. Further information on the results of the BLS survey is available at www.bls.gov/iif/oshwc/osh/os/osnr0014.pdf.

by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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