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Finding the Right Fit in Respiratory Protection Training and Awareness

March 5, 2012
The chair of AIHA's Respiratory Protection Committee discusses key concerns in today's respiratory protection community.

On the TV show Monk, the main character occasionally donned a facemask to ward off the germs he so famously feared. But what Adrian Monk didn’t show viewers is the need for the layman respirator wearer to be properly trained in the use of this personal protective equipment. In real life, after all, a casual user who doesn’t grasp the importance of fit testing or other finer points of the PPE might not get the full protection he or she needs.

Gus Manning, Ph.D., CIH, the chair of the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) Respiratory Protection Committee and the technical director of Assay Technology Inc., spoke to EHS TODAY about some of the most important issues facing respiratory protection stakeholders today. According to Manning, the committee’s concerns and initiatives include raising awareness surrounding fit testing, the need for respirator program administrator training, respirator use in the medical community and more. Here’s what Manning had to say on the various issues that impact the respiratory protection community – and beyond.

On respirator use among the general population:

Manning: There’s quite a bit of respirator use outside of what we call the respiratory protection community, which is industrial hygienists and environmental and occupational health professionals who run safety programs in industry, universities or other organizations. But there’s also lot of use of respirators by consumers and people in the medical profession.

People outside of respiratory protection community use respirators without a good appreciation of how they need to be used, especially fit testing. So we set up a subcommittee to write a fact sheet to address in clear and straightforward terms what people should know about using respirators in reducing the spread of infectious diseases.

The main audience for this outside of our industrial hygiene community is the medical community and also the general public. There’s so much concern in the medical community about the spread of disease and using respirators, [but they] don’t know all they need to do know. So this is the first step in providing that kind of information for occupational hygiene laymen.

On fit testing:

Manning: Fit testing is really important. It’s something I think people in the respiratory protection community are obsessive about, [while] people outside the community may use respirators without a full appreciation of fit testing. If a respirator doesn’t fit, it doesn’t work. Everything revolves around fit testing.

The main thing we’re doing is trying to get the word out. You could argue that maybe we should be working on better methods, but it seems like the problem now is people just aren’t aware of fit testing. It isn’t necessarily that the methods aren’t good enough.

One of the problems for casual users is that they more or less have to get an expert to assist them in fit testing in many cases. Ideally, you’d like to have a test that anyone can do [on their own].

On past (and present) concerns about H1N1 flu and respirator use:

Manning: We do [think H1N1-like concerns will re-emerge], because a lot of people have purchased stockpiles of respirators in case of reoccurrence of that type of disease. There are cases where the FDA has approved respirators for medical use for the prevention of disease, yet we feel they haven’t clearly taken into account the kind of criteria NIOSH would apply – they’ve actually approved respirators without any mention of fit testing.

Then there’s a controversy of using N95 respirators over surgical masks. A lot of people in the medical business feel that surgical masks are just as effective, which of course they aren’t, but they probably are as effective as an N95 mask if they haven’t done fit testing. We’re hoping get some sort of dialogue between FDA and CDC so the FDA would be more knowledgeable about the sort of concepts we use in the respiratory protection community.

On developing a respiratory protection training program for administrators of respiratory programs:

Manning: The most recent OSHA regulation for respiratory protection, 29 CFR 1910.134C3, mentions that there should be an administrator for a respiratory program in an organization that uses respirators. The regulation defines how you’re supposed to run a respiratory program. They say there needs to an administrator who’s qualified with training and experience, but they don’t say what that training and experience should really be. So we’re developing an initiative for the training that should be applied to an administrator to run a respiratory program.

There’s a great need for [this training] in small- to medium-sized organizations. Normally, a large company will have a respirator program administrator who’s a certified industrial hygienist or [otherwise qual i f ied]. But smaller and midsized organizat ions may us e respirators, and they’re aware of the OSHA respirator regulations, but they don’t have a leader for the program.

By having that person take a few courses and get certified – like CPR certification – they’d know how to do it. It’s not rocket science, but you have to be trained. I think it would have a huge impact on small businesses and medium-sized organizations where they don’t necessarily have people attending conferences on chemical safety all the time. There’s also possibility of setting up a registry for administers who take the training program so they would be registered administrators.

On 9/11’s impact on the respiratory protection community:

Manning: 9/11 pointed out the need to have better training for people who use respirators. I think there was a feeling that it was intuitively obvious how to use respirator, and of course mistakes were made during and after 9/11 because people were using them without adequate training or experience. I’d say most of what we’ve been doing for the past 10 years is probably a reaction to some of the mistakes that were made then.

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