What is a Respirator?
You may have been told by your employer that you need to wear a respirator to perform some of your workplace tasks. In fact, approximately 5% of all U.S. workers in about 20% of all work establishments wear respirators at least some of the time while performing their job functions. These workers are employed at approximately 1.3 million establishments nationwide. Approximately 900,000 of these establishments have been determined to be “very small,” i.e., having fewer than 20 employees.
A respirator is a personal protective device that is worn on the face, covers at least the nose and mouth, and is used to reduce the wearer’s risk of inhaling hazardous airborne particles (including dust particles and infectious agents), gases or vapors. Respirators should only be used as a "last line of defense" in the Hierarchy of Controls when engineering and administrative controls are not feasible or are in the process of being put in place.
Respirators protect the user in two basic ways. The first type of respirator removes contaminants from the air, and are called air-purifying respirators (APR). APRs include particulate respirators, which filter out airborne particles, and “gas masks,” which filter out chemicals and gasses. Other respirators protect by supplying clean respirable air from another source. Air-supplying Respirators (ASR) comprise this category of respirators. They include airline respirators, which use compressed air from a remote source; and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), which include their own air supply.
The classification of particulate respirators can be further subdivided into three categories:
- Particulate filtering facepiece respirators – Sometimes referred to as disposable respirators because the entire respirator is discarded when it becomes unsuitable for further use due to considerations of hygiene, excessive resistance, or physical damage. These are also commonly referred to as “N95s.”
- Elastomeric respirators –Sometimes referred to as reusable respirators because the facepiece is cleaned and reused but the filter cartridges are discarded and replaced when they become unsuitable for further use.
- Powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs) – A battery-powered blower moves the air flow through the filters.
Even though you see N95 on the package, it still may not be the right kind of respirator, or one that meets NIOSH approval requirements.
You may have heard that a NIOSH-approved N95 respirator is recommended for your respiratory-protection needs. This is one of the most commonly used respirators. Again, even though you see N95 on the package, it still may not be the right kind of respirator, or one that meets NIOSH approval requirements.
Filtering Facepiece respirators are divided into various classes based on their filtration capabilities. "N95 respirator" is a term used to describe the class of respirators which use N95 filters to remove particles from the air that is breathed through them. The NIOSH respirator approval regulation defines the term N95 to refer to a filter class that removes at least 95% of airborne particles during “worse case” testing using a “most-penetrating” sized particle during NIOSH testing. Filters meeting the criteria are given a 95 rating. Many filtering facepiece respirators have an N95 class filter and those meeting this filtration performance are often referred to simply as N95 respirators.