It was the coughing and wheezing that alerted Marcel Lemire, a veteran of marathons and a hockey player, that something was wrong with his breathing. He was a 40-something healthy and active person who didn’t smoke but all of a sudden, his lungs were in trouble. His diagnosis? Occupational asthma. His personal story featured in The Lung Association’s website illustrates just how serious work-related respiratory diseases are.
Each workplace is different and each one has its own set of occupational hazards such as respiratory health hazards. In Marcel Lemire’s case, his work at a dairy farm in Manitoba involved chemical mists sprayed on containers for sanitation. Without proper ventilation and PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) such as respirators, he inadvertently and presumably inhaled some of these mists while working. After 17 years, it finally took a toll on his lungs.
Respiratory diseases caused by work-related hazards are preventable with proper PPE. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) has a webpage dedicated to useful resources that underline the importance of respiratory PPE in the workplace.
Types of Respirators
Not all respirators are made equal. Different respirators are recommended for different jobs. While there are general purpose respirators and masks for a variety of work conditions, you have to be sure you are choosing the right respirator for your specific task and work site.
Escape Respirators – This type of respirator should only be used in case of emergency. It was designed to prevent exposure to harmful gasses and other dangerous chemical particulates. It is not recommended for prolonged use as it only provides protection for under an hour.
Particulate Respirators – These respirators are the most practical and safe option for workers. Particulate respirators are cost-efficient and can be used for extended periods. However, care must be observed in choosing the right filter for the expected particulates workers may be exposed to. Regular cleaning and replacing of filters are needed to keep the respirators in good working condition.
There are 3 main classes of respirators which are:
N Series (Non- Oil Resistant Filters) – Filters out oil-free particulates such as pollen, ordinary dust, oil-free aerosols, etc.
R Series (Oil-Resistant Filters) – R Series filters are designed to filter out airborne particles that may contain oil particles. Use a filter for up to 8 hours or 1 continuous shift only.
P Series (Oil-Proof Filters) – These are designed to reduce exposure to particulates including oil-based aerosols by 95% to 99.97%. While these filters can generally be used for more than one shift, you have to confirm the service life of the filter with the manufacturer.
All N, P, and R series come in ratings of 95, 99, and 100. The ratings indicate the filter efficiency from 95%, 99%, up to 99.97%.
Gas Masks – Gas masks with cartridges not only filter, they also purify the air that you breathe in. These special respirators are recommended when a worker is in need of higher level of protection from toxic gases, biohazards, and other hazards that are particularly dangerous to the health of the workers.
Air Purifying Respirators (APRs) – These supplied air respirators combine chemical cartridges with filters to protect you against specific types of airborne contaminants such as mercury vapours, organic vapours, acid gas and so on. A variation of this type of respirator is the PAPR or the Powered Air-Purifying Respirator.
Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) – SCBA devices allow workers to work in oxygen-deficient environments such as underwater or underground. Fire fighters and other rescue workers use SCBA to enable them to enter burning buildings or confined spaces where dangerous fumes may be present.
In the United States, regulations for testing, labelling, and use of respirators are strictly implemented by a variety of government agencies like NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health), OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), and the CDC. Canadian standards for respiratory protection are outlined in CSA (Canadian Standard Association) Standard Z94.4-11. Each of the provinces may also have additional regulations to protect their workers.
Health and safety should never be taken for granted. If only the dairy farm where Marcel Lemire worked implemented reasonable safety precautions and provided PPE and better ventilation, he would not have suffered the loss of 26 percent of his lung capacity. His quality of life would not have been affected. Mr. Lemire would’ve completed his 20th or so marathon and still be playing hockey.
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