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10.06.2020, 11:51

Protecting Returning Workers from Harm

Industry & Regulatory News, Health, Safety, Security & Environment, United Kingdom, Coronavirus (COVID-19)

SOCOTEC explains why following respiratory protective equipment (RPE) and mask face-fit guidelines is now even more essential for workforces exposed to hazardous substances.

Whilst Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) tends to be implemented as the last line of protection, current circumstances make it even more important for employers to ensure their workforce is adequately protected when coming into contact with hazardous substances.


Scientific evidence indicates that COVID-19 is primarily transmitted via respiratory droplets, with the level of risk of transmission increasing when an individual is in close contact (less than two metres) to someone who may be hosting the virus. Protecting your workforce from harmful airborne contaminants – including the COVID-19 strain – is absolutely essential, particularly in cases of workplace activity where adhering to social distancing guidelines at all times is physically impossible.


When RPE is used, it is of paramount importance that the respirator chosen provides suitable and adequate protection, and this can be determined by carrying out a face fit test. However, there are a number of areas that those required to wear and test RPE must consider before they can proceed.


What is RPE? What are the two different types of respiratory protective equipment?

Respiratory Protective Equipment, or RPE, is designed to protect the wearer from a variety of airborne hazards, including dust, vapours, gas, fumes and mist. RPE can be categorised into two types:

1.)   Respirators (also known as filtering devices), which use filters to remove contaminants from the air being breathed in. These can be broken down further into:

o   Non-powered respirators – which rely on the wearer’s breathing to draw air through the filter

o   Powered respirators – which use a motor to pass air through the filter to give a supply of clean air.

2.)   Breathing apparatus, which need a supply of breathing-quality air from an independent source to function properly (such as an air cylinder or an air compressor).

Can RPE be reused?

RPE is available in both reusable and non-reusable forms, with each offering a varying level of protection. Reusable RPE is available as a half mask and full face mask, and in order to be safe for reuse, the face pieces should be subject to regular cleaning, maintenance and visual checks before and after wear. Any tears, cracks or distortions should be reported and dealt with, while damaged parts should be replaced as required. Records of inspection and maintenance must be kept for respirators which are reused for more than one month.


Please note that non-reusable masks can only be worn once before they must be disposed of safely.


When should a single use mask or reusable half mask be used? 

Single use respirators (also known as particulate respirators), dust masks and paper masks protect against such particles as dust, bacteria, mists and some fumes, but do not protect against gases or vapours. They are available in three classes: FFP1, FFP2 and FFP3. These have varying Assigned Protection Factors* (APF), with the lowest being FFP1 = 4, FFP2 = 10 and the highest being FFP3 = 20. 


Reusable half masks will protect against dust, bacteria, mists and fumes, as well as gases and vapours, provided that the correct filters have been fitted for the required task. These are either P1, P2 or P3 for protection against particulates, or Gas, FF Gas or FM Gas for protection against gases and vapours. The same APF is provided by both reusable masks and half masks, the lowest being FFP1 = 4, FFP2 = 10 and the highest being FFP3 = 20.


*The Assigned Protection Factor (APF) is the level of protection that a particular respirator can be expected to provide 95% of the time. An APF of 10 means that respirator can be safely used in an atmosphere that has a hazardous concentration of up to 10 times the Workplace Exposure Limit (WEL)


What is face fit and who needs face fit testing? 

While generally categorised into powered and non-powered respirators, RPE can be further broken down into tight-fitting and loose-fitting face pieces. Tight-fitting face pieces – such as an FFP3 and a reusable half mask – need a good level of contact between the seal and the skin in order to adequately protect the wearer. Therefore, anyone who must wear tight-fitting RPE at work is legally required to have a face fit test.


A face fit test will discern whether the model fits the wearer’s face shape and size. RPE is far less effective if it is not worn and fitted properly, as the seal and filtration will be unable to fully protect the wearer from inhaling hazardous substances. As a result, the face fit test must be carried out before RPE is worn for the first time to ensure that the wearer is adequately protected against harmful airborne contaminants. This will also determine whether the RPE in question is suitable, comfortable and compatible for the wearer, their working activity, surrounding environment and any additional PPE used.


Additional face fit testing should only be carried out when there is a change to RPE size, type, material or model, or when there has been a change of circumstance for the wearer, such as weight loss/gain, facial changes, facial piercings or dental work.


What percentage of face fit is not fitted properly? 

According to the British Occupational Hygiene Society, at least 55% of non-face fit tested wearers are not adequately protected, and for every construction worker who dies from a safety related accident,100 will die from exposure to hazardous substances.


Do you need to be clean shaven for a face fit test? 

Wearers of RPE need to be clean shaven around the face to achieve an effective fit and adequate protection, as beards and stubble will stop the seal from working to its full capacity and create large enough gaps for particulates to pass through. Please note that wearers must be clean shaven both during the fit test and when wearing RPE during work in order to ensure adequate protection.


Can I use any form of RPE once I have passed a fit test? 

No – the wearer of the RPE must ensure that they only wear the make, model and size of RPE used during their face fit test.


What guidelines are in place regarding the use of RPE and face fit testing? 

HSE Guidance on Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) Fit Testing, INDG 479 offers advice on face fit testing for the employer and employees carrying out face fit tests for tight-fitting RPE. Guidance is also offered in the HSG53 – Respiratory Protective Equipment at Work document, which considers the wider aspects of RPE provision in the workplace and offers advice on how to select the appropriate RPE for the task in hand. Finally, the OC 282/28 Guidance document: Fit Testing of Respiratory Protective Equipment - a guide for users and testers.


Current government guidelines on social distancing recommend that those wearing RPE should follow additional measures in order to minimise the risk of transmission of COVID-19, including staying two metres apart. However, those who require a secondary individual to carry out a face fitting test must keep their respirators on if closer observation is needed. Naturally, those who are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 should not attend a face fit test.


The NHS recommends that both the fit tester and those being fit tested must wash their hands with soap and water before and after the test for at least 20 seconds. When fit testing non-disposable masks, the wearer must clean the mask themselves both before and after the test using a disinfectant cleaning wipe (checking the manufacturer’s instruction before doing so). Meanwhile, test face pieces that cannot be adequately disinfected should not be used by more than one individual. When testers clean tubes and hoods, they must remove their gloves and safely dispose of them in a waste bin. In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the HSE has published a dedicated webpage on fit testing face masks to avoid and lessen the risk of transmission, which can be found here.


What do I need to do before and during a face fit test? 

Click here to access our Face Fit Checklist, which provides an in-depth overview of all of the necessary steps and areas to consider before and during a face fit test.


As part of SOCOTEC’s new Business Ready programme, our Health & Safety Consultancy can also carry out face fit testing nationwide for all appropriate personnel to ensure that RPE is fitted properly and securely. Testing is based on the worst-case scenario under the hierarchy of control for RPE/PPE to ensure that the highest level of protection is provided. Delivery is based on a maximum of six operatives per order, all of whom must be fit, healthy, clean shaven and in possession of their own FFP2 or FFP3 masks.

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