Most people working with potentially hazardous chemicals or substances would never dream of working without respiratory protection such as a face mask.
However, if that mask doesn’t fit properly, it will not do its job of filtering hazardous chemicals from the air we breathe, and employees are therefore at risk of being exposed to dangerous gases, liquids, dust or fumes that could lead to long-term health problems – or even death.
The effectiveness of face masks – ranging from basic disposable masks to full-face pieces – relies on the fit of the mask to the wearer’s face.
If the seal isn’t complete, the mask and filters are rendered useless, regardless of how expensive they are – and, crucially, the employee is potentially at risk.
At Abermed, we specialise in occupational healthcare, ranging from occupational hygiene to health surveillance to monitor employees’ health and identify early signs of work-related damage from exposure to hazards.
This involves recognising, evaluating and then controlling health hazards arising from work, with the aim of protecting employees’ health and wellbeing.
Health surveillance for hazards with a recognised health effect that can be measured is now a legal requirement under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and accompanying regulations such as the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations and others that cover specific hazards such as lead, asbestos, noise and vibration.
Where masks and breathing apparatus with a tight-fitting face-piece are provided, it is essential to ensure that the equipment works and fits properly, so one of the services that organisations such as Abermed should be able to offer is face-fit testing.
This allows us to check the integrity of the seal around the wearer’s face, ensuring it provides the correct level of protection. In Abermed’s case, we can also train staff to carry out face-fit testing, giving flexibility when repeat tests are required due to factors that can affect fit, such as dental work and weight loss or gain.
Our approach is not just to ensure the correct fit, but the correct donning procedure, too, as this is another factor that can affect fit. There are two methods, known as qualitative and quantitative tests.
Qualitative tests are used for checking the effectiveness of disposable masks and half-masks, not full-face masks. The most common qualitative technique is the “taste test”, which uses a non-toxic bitter-tasting solution.
Quantitative tests can be used to fit-test all types of masks with tight-fitting face-pieces, including disposable, half and full-face masks.
The quantitative tests provide a direct numerical result called a fit factor, calculated by hooking the machine to a computer and monitoring the ambient concentration of particles in the room compared with inside the mask while conducting the fit test.
We offer advice on the correct respiratory equipment, as well as training in how to use it.
Employees who have completed the training will receive a certificate to verify the correct fit has been achieved for the type and model of mask.
There is no bias towards any kind of equipment; the objective is to offer solutions that protect health.
However, Abermed’s expertise in the oil&gas industry means we understand the risks, which can also apply to other fields such as the emergency services, chemical industries, construction and pharmacology.
In today’s litigious society, companies are under increasing pressure to ensure that they do all they can to avoid employees’ developing health problems caused by their work.
As well as helping to safeguard health, face-fit testing and a proper system for monitoring the wellbeing of staff can both prevent future health problems and provide your company with a defence in the event of litigation or prosecution.
For more information on face-fit testing, visit www.abermed.com, or see the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website at http://www.hse.gov.uk/
Abermed’s Julie Zeiler is among the apparently few qualified and experienced occupational hygienists in the UK