10 Steps to Protect Workers against Airborne Hazards


Respiratory safety involves more than properly wearing and maintaining personal protective equipment (PPE). Follow these steps to evaluate hazards and establish effective procedures to mitigate those hazards.

In facilities where airborne hazards or oxygen deficiencies are present, a worker’s respiratory health must be considered. Each year, about 5 million workers on nearly 1.3 million job sites in the U.S. are required to wear respirators to protect against insufficient oxygen environments, harmful dusts, fogs, smokes, mists, gases, vapors, or sprays, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) (1).

Sometimes, the effects of exposure to a hazardous environment are obvious because they are instantaneous. At other times, the hazards may have longer-term effects that adversely impact the worker’s health in years to come. To ensure that workers are better protected from all risks, OSHA’s respiratory protection standard (2) requires that every facility designate a program administrator to develop, enforce, and maintain a written respiratory protection program. These programs help to reduce worker exposure to respiratory hazards as well as keep companies compliant with regulations.

Respiratory protection programs involve the anticipation of myriad potential hazards and the navigation of multiple regulations, so it can be helpful to think of OSHA’s requirements in phases. This 10-step procedure will help you implement a successful respiratory protection program and comply with the OSHA standard for respiratory protection (29 CFR 1910.134) (2). (Note that this is not a comprehensive analysis of all the issues at play. For more information, see the OSHA standard at www.osha.gov.)

1. Perform a hazard assessment

The first step is to identify the contaminants that are present in the workplace. Determine the quantity, physical properties, and potential health effects of all materials used in the facility. It is also vital to consider whether the jobsite is a confined space or could otherwise present oxygen deficiency hazards.

Start by carefully reviewing the safety data sheets (SDSs) provided by each material’s manufacturer. Review process flow diagrams to determine where hazards are present and whether chemical interactions or changes in the environment could release any potential contaminants. Next, consider the physical form of each potential hazard: Is it a gas, vapor, mist, particulate, etc.?

Then, factor in the toxicity of each contaminant. Is it an eye irritant? A skin irritant? A carcinogen? What are the warning signs of overexposure? Could the chemicals have acute effects — immediate, short-term effects usually caused by high-exposure situations? Could they have chronic effects from lower exposure, with symptoms that may not appear immediately?

(Editor’s Note: For more on toxicology, see two previous CEP articles: Grabinski, C., “Toxicology 101,” pp. 31–36, Nov. 2015; and Sweeney, L. M., “A Chemical Engineer’s Guide to Toxicology, pp. 36–40, June 2004.)

2. Categorize employees into similar exposure groups

Next, examine all the possible scenarios and workers who may be impacted by each contaminant. For example, what tasks might generate contaminants or otherwise put workers at risk? Is inhalation one of the ways workers could be exposed to the hazard?

When examining the various employees who might be exposed to the hazard(s), it usually is not practical to measure every worker’s individual exposure levels. Categorize employees who perform similar tasks at the same frequency using similar methods and materials into similar exposure groups (SEGs) and evaluate their exposure levels as a group.

SEGs can be formed based on tasks, processes, job classifications, contaminants, or work teams. For example, one site’s SEGs might include first-shift maintenance workers, second-shift operators, and so forth. Past exposure monitoring data can also help in determining the pertinent SEGs.

3. Monitor exposure

Exposure monitoring enables employers to identify any unacceptable exposures. In most cases, contaminants must be identified prior to monitoring, so the company can prepare and use monitoring equipment and procedures that are specific to those contaminants. Because exposure monitoring often involves a high level of skill and experience, it is typically performed by an industrial hygienist or, in some cases, by a knowledgeable safety manager.

Small companies can find an industrial hygiene consultant through their insurance provider or by visiting the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) website (www.aiha.org) and entering “Find an Industrial Hygienist” into the search bar. OSHA (www.osha.gov) also has a free consultation branch separate from its enforcement group (see sidebar for more information).

Personal air monitoring is the most reliable and accurate method for determining exposure on an individual basis. It collects samples near the employee’s breathing zone, usually with a sampling device attached to the shirt collar. The sample-collection duration depends on the chemical’s occupational exposure limit and anticipated duration of exposure.

For chemicals with short-term exposure limits, ceiling limits, or short bursts of exposure, colorimetric detector tubes or real-time electronic gas detection samplers can be used. Colorimetric tubes in handheld bellows change color if gases or vapors are present at or above a certain concentration in the air drawn in through the tube.

Real-time gas detection is often used when dealing with oxygen deficiency and/or confined spaces. A standard four-gas meter has sensors to measure oxygen levels, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, and explosive atmospheres. In some cases, additional chemical sensors for different gases or vapors may be required.

Finding Help to Conduct a Respiratory Exposure Assessment

Companies with neither an industrial hygienist on staff nor a trained safety professional qualified to conduct a respiratory exposure assessment may need to bring in an outside consultant.

This consultant can either handle the entire process or just the portions for which help is needed. The American Industrial Hygiene Association’s (AIHA) website, www.aiha.org, can help you locate an independent consultant certified by the American Board of Industrial Hygiene. A company’s workers’ compensation or insurance carrier may have an independent outside consultant. Sometimes OSHA and state agencies or local universities also offer consulting programs, especially for small businesses.


Author Bios: 

Erik W. Johnson

Erik W. Johnson, CIH, CSP, is a technical service specialist with the Personal Safety Div. of 3M Co. (Email: erikwjohnson@mmm.com), where he has worked for the past 25 years. His current responsibilities include product development and stewardship, technical writing, and public speaking. Previously, his focus was technical service for the Asia/Pacific region. Johnson holds a BA in physics from St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, and a Master’s in Public Health (MPH) with an emphasis in industrial hygiene from the Univ. of Minnesota.
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