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Respiratory protective equipment (RPE) is critical for many body shop activities, including paint spraying, cutting, welding and avoiding dust hazards when using a grinder or abrasives – but tight-fitting respirators must fit properly.

The most common forms of RPE are disposable and full or half-face reusable respirators. These can be suitable in a number of applications but for these respirators to work effectively, they must create an adequate seal to the wearer’s face. If this seal leaks, the wearer risks breathing in unfiltered, potentially hazardous contaminants in the air.

Even facial hair can affect this seal, which is why the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) stipulates that those who wear tight-fitting respirators must be clean shaven under the area of the face seal (see panel). Respiratory Face Fit testing ensures that a chosen piece of equipment is capable of sealing adequately to a particular individual.

Testing should be carried out at the earliest opportunity, before being worn in hazardous environments. It is also that face fit-testing is undertaken while the user is wearing other personal protective equipment (PPE) required in their daily work that may interfere with the seal of the RPE.

For example, people wearing respirators and protective eyewear often adjust the seal of their respirator to accommodate their eyewear or to make it feel more comfortable, but this can significantly reduce the level of protection as it may no longer provide an adequate seal to the face.

Why is fit-testing so important?

The consequences of using ineffective RPE can be seriously harmful for an individual, and also have an effect on the business should an employee take legal action. According to the HSE, some 12 000 people die each year as a result of occupational respiratory diseases, of which about two-thirds are due to asbestos-related diseases or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Appropriately fitting RPE is essential in protecting against chemicals, fumes, dust and fibres. The fumes given off by welding and hot-cutting processes is a varying mixture of airborne gases and very fine particles, which if inhaled can cause a number of respiratory diseases including asthma and cancer.

How to test

RPE fit-testing may be conducted by competent inhouse employees or by a qualified service provider. In-house testing using a qualitative taste test is common practice for users of disposable respirators and reusable half masks.

In summary, this method involves placing a hood over the user’s head while they are wearing their RPE and other PPE, then spraying a fine mist of either a bitter or a sweet-tasting solution into the enclosed hood.

During the test, if the person can taste the mist, the RPE is judged not to have formed an adequate seal to the wearer’s face, and therefore the test is failed.

Two fails with the same item of RPE usually indicates that the product cannot provide an adequate seal and therefore an alternative model of RPE should be considered, and properly fit-tested. If they cannot taste the mist during the test, the wearer has passed the qualitative fit-test.

Fit-testing can be conducted by a competent person from inside the company, or by an external service provider. Accreditation under the British Safety Industry Federation’s Fit2Fit scheme is a good way to judge the competence of testers, although this is not a mandatory requirement. 3M offers a fit-testing service delivered by Fit2Fit accredited testers.

Frequent tryer

Fit-testing should be performed on a periodic basis, or whenever there is a change that might affect RPE performance. For example, if the wearer loses or gains a significant amount of weight or undergoes dental work, the shape of their face may change which could affect the respirator seal. If an employer decides to switch RPE models entirely or a manufacturer makes significant changes to the design of their product, fit-testing will again be required.

If in doubt, it is recommended that body shops seek further advice from the manufacturer, to determine whether fit-testing will need to be repeated.