Respiratory hazards exist in a surprising number of industries, and even the most innocuous workplaces can be at risk — and the risk is substantial. Chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and occupational lung diseases are among the leading causes of morbidity and mortality worldwide. They are also contributing factors to the rise in many non-communicable diseases. Although lifestyle choices, including smoking, can also contribute, exposure in workplaces is a frequent source of all of these respiratory illnesses.

Occupational lung diseases, for example, are the primary cause of occupational associated illness in the U.S. Most of these are caused by repeated, long-term exposure to hazardous materials. However, a single exposure, if severe enough, can also play a role. Regardless of the cause, occupational lung diseases, like most other respiratory illnesses, are also entirely preventable.

Whether you are repainting your office space, removing asbestos from ceilings or mining coal, there are ways you can and should protect your workers from the respiratory hazards in your workplace.

1. Assess the Hazard

The problem with respiratory hazards is that you can’t always see them. Conversely, that cloud of dust you see might be entirely harmless. Although we can recognize the risks associated with working with hazardous materials such as asbestos or crystalline silica, we can’t tell the extent of the risk without testing the air. This requires both specialized equipment and trained personnel. If you suspect an immediate hazard, request an air quality assessment from a qualified professional.

The best way to find out what respiratory hazards might be regularly putting your employees at risk is to do a formal hazard assessment. Your assessment should include the source of the danger, the extent of the risk and permissible exposure limits. It should also take into account your usual workplaces processes and emergency responses.

2. Eliminate or Reduce the Hazard

Elimination of the hazard should be the first line of defence for your workers. However, if eliminating the risk isn’t possible, then minimize it as much as possible. Both administrative controls and engineering controls can help you reduce exposure to respiratory hazards.

3. Reduce with Administrative Controls

Administrative controls change the way that your people work or change the tasks they perform in order to reduce their exposure. These controls can include:

  • Scheduling designed to limit the time a worker is exposed
  • Written operating procedures created to protect workers from exposure or reduce their exposure
  • Installation of alarms, signs, and warnings, and posting of signs and posters
  • Creation of a buddy system for peer monitoring of exposure

4. Reduce with Engineering Controls

The relocation of your workers away from a respiratory hazard is one example of an engineering control, but that isn’t a practical solution for all workplaces. So, the goal of any additional engineering controls you install should instead be to remove or dilute the hazard. Some examples of engineering controls designed to do this include:

  • Vacuum systems to remove dust
  • Vacuum conveyance systems to eliminate manual handling of hazardous materials
  • Ventilation systems
  • Automated systems that replace or reduce manual tasks

5. The Last Line of Defence: Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

In many workplaces, it just isn’t possible to eliminate or even reduce respiratory hazards. If this is the situation at your workplace, supply your workers with the best available PPE to keep them safe. The type of PPE that your workers need depends on both the nature of the contaminant and the potential level of worker exposure. Choices include dust masks, full or full-face respirators, supplied-air respirators or self-contained breathing apparatus.

Dust Masks

While dust masks can protect against non-toxic nuisance dust, they offer little protection from toxic substances. Although many look like N-95 respirators, they are not regulated nor are they approved for use by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Respirators

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), millions of American workers are required to wear respirators at work. They protect these workers from harmful dust, fogs, smokes, mists, gases, vapors, and sprays but also from environments with insufficient oxygen. They operate by removing contaminated particles from the air via a cartridge or canister which filters out chemicals and gases. Particulate respirators are one example of this type of PPE.

Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus

Airline respirators and self-contained breathing apparatus are the second type of respirator available. The self-contained breathing apparatus works by providing the user with a supply of clean air often from a secondary source such as a tank. This PPE is recommended for use in areas where there is little available oxygen or where contaminants are so prevalent filtering cannot eliminate or reduce the hazard.

Supplied Air Systems

Supplied air systems provide breathable air through an air hose connected to an air supply outside of the contaminated area. These systems supply continuous breathable air to workers who must work in areas where air quality is compromised, either by a lack of oxygen or by respiratory hazards.

6. Train Your Team to Both Recognize and Minimize Hazards

Worker and supervisor training is crucial to any plan to tackle respiratory hazards in your workplace. This training must be multi-pronged, designed to help your employees recognize the risks and help you reduce them. To accomplish this, ensure your workers understand both the hazards that exist in your workplace and the short- and long-term respiratory impact these hazards can have. This means training in recognizing the signs and symptoms of respiratory illness as well as lifestyle habits such as smoking which can exacerbate these illnesses.

Your worker training program should also include:

  • Fit testing for respirators if you use them
  • Proper use and care of PPE
  • Explanation of the hazards at your workplace and your efforts to mitigate these hazards
  • Advice regarding the recognition of potential respiratory dangers and how to report those hazards
  • The limitations of mitigation efforts such as PPE
  • Emergency response protocols