Whether you’re working in a potentially hazardous environment or carrying out work which produces fine dusts or vapour, you’ll want to make sure you have suitable safety masks. But it isn’t as simple as picking one which you like the look of.
With a choice of respirators and dust masks available, they both work by using specialist filters which allow you to breathe as normal, but prevent harmful particles from passing through.
In many workplaces, it is often a requirement to ensure all at-risk employees are provided with the appropriate Respiratory Protection Equipment (RPE). But even when carrying out DIY at home, for the benefit of your own health you’ll want to consider a disposable mask.
Approximately 5.5million workers are exposed to such breathing hazards every year. And it is estimated that 12,000 lung disease deaths occur every year which are linked to past exposures at work, including lung cancers and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).
This highlights how important it is to wear suitable safety masks.
When Do I Need To Wear a Safety Mask?
Safety masks are often found used in construction, industrial, and chemical workplaces, and are often needed because of the materials used, or the type of work being carried out. Most dangerous are dusts, fumes, mists, gases and vapours.
Dusts are produced when solid materials, such as wood, plastic or concrete, are broken down into finer particles. This could be by drilling, sawing or sanding of the object. And the longer the dust remains in the air, the smaller the particles, and the greater the hazard.
Mists in the air are tiny liquid droplets which form when they’ve been sprayed or subjected to condensation. The mist is what makes it breathable, but it is the ingredients which define how hazardous it is.
Metal fumes are created when metals are vaporised under high heat, such as when carrying out hold work such as welding. The vapour then cools quickly and condenses into fine particles.
Gases are often odourless and invisible and remain airborne at room temperature. They are able to diffuse and spread freely around the environment.
Vapours are a gaseous state which form when a substance is evaporated in the heat but which are liquids or solids at room temperature.
The best way to ensure you are providing adequate cover is by having a risk assessment completed which will determine the risks that exist and what actions are required.
Choosing The Right Safety Masks
There are many factors which determine the right breathing apparatus for the individual and the workplace.
For low-level risks, a disposable mask would be suitable. These are widely available and require replacing every day, with some disposables now capable of providing a whole week of protection.
For higher risks which you would be constantly exposed to, then a half mask or full-face mask could be necessary.
Next you need to select the correct filters to ensure you have adequate protection against the hazards you’re exposed to. These are easily identifiable using a letter and colour to denote the different types.
A (Brown) – Organic Vapours with a boiling point greater than 65°C.
AX (Brown) – Certain organic compounds with boiling points less than 65°C.
B (Grey) – Inorganic gases and vapours, such as chlorine.
E (Yellow) – Acid gases and vapour, including sulphur dioxide.
K (Green) – Ammonia and organic ammonia derivatives.
P1 (White) – Non-toxic dust and mist particles.
P2 (White) – Toxic dusts, fumes, and aerosol particles.
P3 (White) – Toxic and carcinogenic dusts, mists and fume particles.
These are often available in various combinations to suit multiple hazards, but bear in mind that although an ABEK1P3 filter protects against more hazards than an A1P2 filter, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best choice.
Safety Masks For The Individual
Additionally, whatever you choose has to be suitable for the wearer, and fitted correctly. And if the wearer is required to wear other PPE products, such as safety glasses or ear plugs, they cannot interfere with each other.
As of November 2002, fit testing has been a requirement of employers providing such equipment. It makes sure that the facepieces are tight-fitting and there’s an unbroken seal between the skin and the safety mask, to ensure there is no leakage.
This is because what is suitable for one person may not be for another. We all have different face shapes and sizes which influence the performance of the mask, but thankfully, many masks these days comfortably mould to the unique face-shape of the wearer.
It’s also important to ensure that wearers of such equipment are clean-shaven. Even though beards are currently in fashion, facial hair will reduce the integrity of the seal, and therefore the mask’s ability to protect the wearer from breathing hazards.
Whether you’re a large organisation with lots of employees to protect, or someone carrying out DIY at home, if there are potentially harmful particles around then safety masks are essential for prolonged good health.