Working Together for Respiratory Protection

May 20, 2003
What do marriage and respiratory protection programs have in common? Experts say the good ones are built on a solid relationship.

I absolutely believe employee participation is the key piece missing in most respirator programs," asserted Bruce Lippy, director of the National Clearinghouse for Worker Safety and Health Training. "Too often, respirators are just pushed down to the workers."

Patrick Kelly, CIH, CSP, vice-chair of the American Industrial Hygiene Association's respiratory protection committee, agrees on the importance of worker participation. "People are not going to use respirators if they're just told, 'Now put this on!'" said Kelly.

Some organizations have discovered that involving workers in their respiratory protection program can lead to surprisingly big benefits.

A Three-step Program

Effective respirator programs seem to thrive on a good relationship between management and hourly workers. Experts identified three basic steps to enhance employee participation:

  • Consult with workers about using engineering solutions to reduce or eliminate the hazards that require respirator use;
  • Educate workers so that they fully understand the workplace hazards;
  • Maintain employee participation through annual fit-testing and training sessions, as required by OSHA regulations.

Although the elements of a successful respirator program are well known, a dysfunctional relationship between management and workers can sabotage even the best intentions for respiratory protection. That could account, at least in part, for a recent survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) that found a large percentage of U.S. companies may not be complying with OSHA's respiratory protection standard, 29 CFR 1910.134 (see chart). For example, in nearly half of the companies where respirator use is required, workers have not had a medical assessment to determine their fitness to wear the devices.

Annual fit-testing and proper training also appear to be far from universal practice, as called for by the OSHA standard.

For more than two decades, Roy McKay, Ph.D., director of occupational pulmonary services at the University of Cincinnati, has been doing quantitative fit testing and a wide variety of respirator training programs at U.S. companies. He said that, especially at smaller and medium-sized organizations, appalling inadequacies in respirator programs are not uncommon.

"Employee involvement is instrumental if you want a successful program," he asserted. "For one thing, the person in charge of the program has so many other responsibilities, she may not have first-hand knowledge of what's going on in the workplace." In addition, even a qualified safety and health professional may not have enough information to run a respirator program effectively without worker input.

Fitting the respirator to the face of the worker is an even more fundamental reason why employee participation is essential. Respirators must be comfortable or they won't be used, and they must fit well or they won't be effective.

Building Successful Relationships

Lippy has worked for OSHA, evaluating potential members of the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP). "It's no accident that VPP requires worker participation," he said. "It's remarkable the difference it makes and this is where companies have the biggest problem."

Ten years ago, the Rohm & Haas Powder Coatings plant in Reading, Pa., was plagued by high injury and lost workday incidence rates. "We realized we needed to do something with our entire program," said Jeff Wetzel, health and safety manager for all U.S. Rohm & Haas Powder Coatings plants.

Today, the Reading plant is a VPP Star worksite, and Wetzel believes employee participation is one reason why. "To have a good respirator program, you need to consider all kinds of things. It's not just about wearing a respirator."

In fact, Wetzel is proudest of how employees helped him to reduce greatly the need to wear respirators. "The number one thing you want to do is engineer the hazard out, and that's where I think our employees have been so directly involved," he said.

The manufacture of powder coatings creates lots of particulates, but thanks to improved housekeeping and engineering controls, the Reading plant no longer needs to use half-face masks. A manufacturer produces a disposable respirator that meets the plant's current needs, and it is far more comfortable for workers.

Quentin Wenrich, a powders technician at the facility, confirmed that management does listen to workers' suggestions.

"When we built the new section to our plant, they brought in employees from several areas and asked them, 'How would you want to change it?'" said Wenrich. For example, the company has installed "elephant hoses" throughout the facility that suck up much of the dust.

What do engineering controls and worker input have to do with a successful respirator program?

"If workers are part of the process and understand that an engineering solution isn't feasible, then they'll accept wearing a respirator," said Lippy. "If you have no role in the process and someone just throws a respirator at you, you may be resentful."

But, he warned, if an employee safety committee makes a recommendation, management must at least consider and respond to it. If not, employee participation will quickly die. "This doesn't mean you adopt everything they suggest, but you must show some response. Unfortunately, this is not commonly done. Many committee recommendations die on the vine."

Step Two: Understanding the Hazards

Mutual understanding is the cornerstone of any successful relationship. Once you have established that engineering controls will not eliminate the need for respirators, educating employees to recognize and understand workplace hazards is the foundation for employee participation and an effective respiratory protection program.

"It's important to help them understand that while a respirator in some cases may appear to be a nuisance, that's what allows them to work safely in that area," commented McKay. Understanding the hazards and proper training in respirator use will also increase the chances that employees use, store and maintain the devices properly.

Having workers who understand the hazards pays off in other ways, according to Ellis LeBouef, site safety specialist at DynMcDermott Petroleum Operations, West Hackberry Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a VPP site. "The workers help us identify areas where hazards exist that we might not be aware of," he said. "It's a two-way exchange of information, because we can then also inform them of how they can work without risk."

LeBouef said the previous company that operated the site had no interest in VPP or employee participation. But DynMcDermott's vision was to operate in a safe and environmentally responsible manner. "Improved employee participation made it possible for us to join VPP, and it has improved our safety program. I have the data to show it," he asserted.

The improved safety record is one reason why the Department of Energy just renewed the company's contract to operate the strategic petroleum reserve.

Patrick Kelly is health and safety specialist at Calpine Corp., a San Jose, Calif. company that produces electricity out of steam coming from holes it drills in the ground. He said Calpine trains its workers on all potential hazards, and includes workers in all job hazard evaluations. "The people who do the work are always part of the job hazard evaluation," he said.

McKay warned that effective training is not as simple as playing a videotape. "Increasingly we're seeing more and more non-personal ways of training, such as the Internet, CD-ROMs or videotapes." McKay believes there is no substitute for the interaction that occurs between an instructor and a worker during a more traditional classroom session.

Relationship Maintenance

Keeping employees actively involved in the respirator program is a never-ending effort. "It's just like any other relationship; it requires maintenance," commented Charles Gibson, customer service and technical support specialist for OHD, a Birmingham, Ala. company that markets respirator fit-testing devices.

Gibson and other experts in the field pointed to two ways to counter complacency and keep workers involved in the program: fit-testing and the annual training required by the OSHA regulation.

McKay said the one-on-one interaction that takes place during fit-testing provides an opportunity to uncover problems or concerns the worker may have. Gibson's experience is that there is a positive correlation between strong employee participation, higher levels of fit testing, and better protection of workers.

"When management and employees are actively trying to find the best fit, workers are more likely to wear the devices," he said.

From the workers' perspective, Wenrich put it this way: "One important benefit of employee participation in a respirator program is it cuts down on complacency, and since these things can be uncomfortable, complacency is always a problem."

To help keep the required annual training in respirator use fresh and interesting for workers, Kelly uses any incident that occurred during the year as a teaching opportunity.

While it may take time to develop trust between workers and management, McKay cautioned the relationship can be destroyed if the administrator of the program gives out the wrong information. "We've had situations where through their own research, workers identified that they were wearing inappropriate respirators," he said. "Then you have a complete failure in the respirator program."

Surprising Benefits

When it comes to respiratory protection programs, a successful "marriage" between workers and management can bring a wealth of benefits, according to McKay and Wetzel.

  • Respirators are more likely to be well maintained, lowering replacement and repair costs;
  • Better morale cuts down on absenteeism and can spill over to other areas where trust and communication improve performance;
  • Workers are more likely to wear the respirators, reducing the risk of illness and lost workdays;
  • The risk of perceived illness declines, potentially reducing the number of respiratory disease allegations against the company.

In a litigious society, it may be just as important to reduce the perception of harm as the hazard itself. For example, McKay explained, what happens when workers believe a company has an ineffective respiratory protection program, and a co-worker who smokes develops a respiratory ailment? "We're more likely to blame it on the program, rather than on the fact that the person may have brought it on himself by smoking."

On the other hand, if a company has a very effective program, with regular basic and refresher training courses, annual fit-testing, and high levels of employee participation, the situation is very different.

"In that case," said McKay,"we're more likely to recognize the individual is sick because of his own bad habit."

Sidebar: Many Companies May Violate OSHA Respirator Standard

From August 2000 to January 2002, the Bureau of Labor Statistics conducted a special survey of respirator use for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The following results were reported over a 12-month period for those companies where respirator use is required.

  • Assessment of medical fitness to wear respirators: 47.8 percent of companies surveyed said yes, 47.2 percent of companies said no and 4.9 percent of companies said don't know.
  • Fit-testing for workers who wear tight-fitting respirators: 68.5 of companies surveyed said yes, 23.4 percent said no and 2.5 percent said don't know.
  • Wearers are trained to understand the use and limitations of respirators: 59.2 of companies surveyed said yes, 8.6 percent said no (respondents said "no training required") and 32.2 percent said they follow manufacturers' instructions.

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