Whether you’re in construction, welding, agriculture, or any other industry whose workers are exposed to insufficient oxygen environments or potentially toxic airborne agents, you’re required to protect your employees from respiratory hazards. Yet, research shows that not nearly enough employers are taking heed—and many are failing to provide sufficient training and respiratory protection.
Recent headlines bring attention to workforce respiratory health
For the sixth year in a row, respiratory protection hazards ranked #4 in the 2016 list of the 10 most frequently cited health and safety violations released by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). An additional 280 violations were issued in this category this year, leading to a total of 3,585 violations issued in the category.
What’s more, OSHA has finalized two new crystalline silica standards: one for general industry and maritime, and the other for construction. These have been issued to help protect the more than 2 million workers who are exposed to crystalline silica, a deadly dust that’s a common component of sand, stone, rock, concrete, brick, block, and mortar.
This is important news, driving home the fact that respiratory protection in the industrial workplace is essential to help prevent long-term and even fatal health problems:
- Of the 12.7 million people diagnosed with cancer each year, anywhere from381,000 to 762,000 diagnoses stem from prolonged exposure to workplace carcinogens. (CDC/NIOSH)
- Lung cancer has been shown to be most prevalent in rubber manufacturing, paving, roofing, painting, iron and steel foundry work, and welding because workers may come in contact with respiratory irritants including radon, asbestos, arsenic, cadmium, chromium compounds, diesel exhaust, and sulfur mustard. (Worksite Med)
Common industrial respiratory hazards
Here’s a simple overview of the respiratory hazards found in many industrial workplace environments:
Gas: Categorized as inert, acid, or organic, common gases include carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, chlorine, and hydrogen sulfide. They’re often found in oil and gas refining, mining, tanning, pulp and paper processing, and rayon manufacturing.
Vapor: Examples of vapors include methylene chloride, toluene, and mineral spirits. Often found in the form of solvent vapors—from spray coatings, adhesives, paints, strippers, and cleaning solvents—they’re of particular concern to workers in dry cleaning and industrial cleaning, construction, and solvent distribution and formulation. Additionally, employees in pharmaceutical manufacturing, metal cleaning and degreasing, adhesives manufacturing and use, and polyurethane foam production need to be aware of the dangers of vapor inhalation.
Dust: Described as mechanically generated solid particles 0.5 to 10 microns in diameter, dust results from a wide range of processes such as quarrying, grinding, blasting, etching, or mixing. Examples of potentially harmful dusts include wood dust, mineral dust, metallic vegetable dust, and silica dust. As such, they are likely encountered by workers in minerals extraction and processing, food processing, quarries, woodworking shops, construction, and glass and ceramics manufacturing.
Fume: Fumes are solid condensation particles measuring 0.1 to 1 micron in diameter, and include lead, zinc, and iron. Metal fumes result from welding, cutting, and smelting of metals, and lead fume exposure occurs in most industry sectors including construction, manufacturing, and lead remediation.
Mist: These are liquid particles, 5 to 100 microns in diameter, and include paint mists and oil mists commonly found in construction activities and machine shops.
Fibers: Harmful fibers, such as asbestos and fiberglass, are frequently present in the air during the maintenance and demolition of buildings where the materials had been used as insulation material.
Protecting employees from respiratory harm
According to OSHA, An estimated 5 million workers are required to wear respirators in 1.3 million workplaces throughout the United States. Employers implementing safety measures are encouraged to gain an understanding of the various respirator models and to work with a professional, if necessary, to select the most appropriate solution for their workplace.
To cover the basics, there are two types of respirators:
- Removes contaminants from the air: Filtering face-piece respirators, for example, protect the wearer against airborne particulates (e.g., dusts). An air-purifying respirator with properly selected chemical cartridges, on the other hand, filters out chemicals and gases so the worker can inhale clean air.
- Supplies clean air from another source: Atmosphere-supplying respirators protect people against hazardous atmospheres, like carbon monoxide and lack of oxygen. Examples include an airline respirator, which uses compressed air from a remote source, and a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), which includes its own air supply.
Learn about more types of respirators and their uses in this OSHA Quick Card.
Employers using respirators in their workplace must have a respiratory protection program meeting the requirements of either the Federal OSHA or their State OSHA respiratory protection standards, and it must be managed by a qualified, trained program administrator. The standards require employers to:
- Develop and implement a written respiratory protection program
- Evaluate the respiratory hazards in the workplace
- Select and provide appropriate respirators
- Provide worker medical evaluations and respirator fit testing
- Provide for the maintenance, storage, and cleaning of respirators
- Train workers about respiratory hazards and proper respirator use
- Evaluate workers’ use of respirators and correct any problems
- Provide employees access to specific records and documents, such as a written copy of the respiratory protection program
- Conduct a periodic program review
We suggest reading Respiratory Protection in General Industry: An Overview of Hazards & OSHA’S Program Requirements for details.
Certain industrial workplace environments will always pose a threat to employees’ respiratory health. The risks of fatal and long-term health problems are real. However, with the right standards, equipment, education, precautions, and plan in place, employers can go a long way in protecting employees from harm. It’s time everyone got serious about respiratory health. That way we can all breathe easy, knowing the right measures are in place to help protect the health, safety, and productivity of employees.
For advice or consultation about use of respiratory protection at your workplace, current customers can also contact their local Acadia Insurance loss control representative.