Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Can your respirator program accommodate physical changes?

March 12, 2020

Photo: © smederevac/Getty ImagesPhoto: © smederevac/Getty Images

You may have employees who are not getting an airtight seal on their respirators.

For example, employees with full beards – worn for personal or religions reasons – may have their beards interfering with respirator face seals. Wagish Yajaman, occupational hygienist and supervisor of WSPS’ Technical Services, sees this firsthand in workplaces he visits.

To work effectively, most respirators require an airtight seal between the respirator and the user’s face and/or neck. Facial hair could interfere with the seal, drawing contaminated air into the workers’ lungs. But that’s not the only threat. Age, changes in body weight, earrings, headscarves, wigs, facial piercings, dental work, facial injury – any of these could compromise respirator seals.

“Workers may have a false sense of security in the ability of the equipment they’re wearing to protect them,” says Yajaman. “This could cause irreversible damage to their health.” While most workplaces already have written respirator programs, he’s concerned that otherwise conscientious employers may not recognize the circumstances putting their workers at risk.


To work effectively, most respirators require an airtight seal between the respirator and the user’s face and/or neck.

These six steps can help ensure the effectiveness of your respirator program:

1. Identify and assess the hazards.

Process changes may have eliminated or introduced hazards. Figure out what substances you need to protect people from and how much of it workers may be exposed to (review MSDSs or SDSs).

2. Look at what’s really going on in your workplace.

Are people following prescribed practices? If not, why? Do they know what these practices are? Are ventilation controls working correctly? Are any controls missing?

3. Compare the reality to your existing program.

For example, are your training records up to date? Has everyone – workers and supervisors – received the training they need to fulfil their responsibilities? Are you using the right respirators for the hazard? Do the respirators fit properly and have workers been fit tested? Do people know how to look after their respirators? Do you need a policy for clean-shaven faces if respirators are required?

4. Identify solutions.

Are there more effective prevention alternatives to respirators, such as mechanical ventilation, enclosure or isolation of the process or work equipment, proper control and use of process equipment, and/or process modifications, including substitution of less hazardous materials?

This is one of the first questions a Ministry of Labour inspector would ask. If not, are there respirators better suited to the hazard or that allow people to keep their beards? (For example, for persons that have beards for religious reasons, a powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR) hood would be used.

5. Create an action plan with achievable goals and timelines.

Draw on in-house and external expertise to develop and implement the plan. To manage workload and ensure buy-in, involve key stakeholders, such as managers, supervisors, the joint health and safety committee, and health and safety associations like WSPS. Include clear objectives and next steps so that everyone understands what to do and how to do it.

6. Conduct a follow-up review.

Identify what’s working well and what can be improved. Celebrate successes and set new goals and timelines for implementing improvements.

Suggested components of a respirator program

This is what the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety suggests:

  • Hazard identification and control
  • Exposure assessment
  • Respirator selection
  • Respirator fit testing
  • Training program
  • Inspection and record keeping
  • Cleaning and sanitizing respirators
  • Repairing and maintaining respirators
  • Proper storage of respirators
  • Health surveillance
  • Standard operating procedures (in writing)
  • Program evaluation

This article was prepared by Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS), which has helped Ontario businesses improve health and safety for over 100 years. For more information, visit or contact WSPS at

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2020 edition of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.

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