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It’s hard to believe that just one year ago, we were only just learning about the health hazards in the workplace brought on by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Looking back, we can see how much COVID-19 safe work practices have affected so many aspects of our work environments, and how much has changed.

COVID-19 continues to present many unique challenges for employee health & safety and respiratory protection. New cleaning and disinfecting protocols that involve use of electrostatic sprayers may have been implemented, or changes to respiratory protection may have changed for specific tasks due to the national shortage of N95 respirators last year. Employees may choose to voluntarily use respirators to protect themselves from COVID-19, as guidance for workplaces and for those who are fully vaccinated evolves. New operations and activities conducted in your workplace may trigger the need for initial establishment of a respiratory protection program, or your current program may need to be updated.

What is a Respiratory Protection Program, anyways?

A Respiratory Protection Program (RPP) is a written program required under the OSHA Respiratory Protection Standard (29 CFR 1910.134) for workplaces whose employees use respirators. Respiratory Protection Programs are intended to prevent employee exposure to air containing harmful dusts, fogs, fumes, mists, gases, smokes, sprays, or vapors, and to prevent employee illness caused by such exposures.

Before deciding to use respirators to protect employee health, consider what engineering controls can be implemented in your workplace. Then, if you determine that respirators are still required to prevent employee exposure, before deploying respiratory protection, as an employer you are responsible for creating and maintaining a written program that covers multiple aspects, including:

  • Selection of appropriate respirators;
  • Fit testing;
  • Facility-specific procedures for respirator use in your workplace;
  • Employee medical evaluations;
  • Work area surveillance;
  • Respirator inspection, cleaning, maintenance, and storage; and
  • Air quality and ventilation standards. 

Your RPP also needs to also address record-keeping and document control; regular evaluation of program effectiveness; and training to ensure employees understand proper use, purpose, and limitations of the respirators that they will be using at their worksite.

In the age of COVID-19, when do you need to implement – or update – a Respiratory Protection Program?

If you have never had a RPP, but added the use of N95 or similar respirators during the last year, or if you added cleaning or other tasks that trigger the need for respirators, you will likely need to implement a RPP. A Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Hazard Assessment can help you determine whether new practices in your workplace require the use of a respirator and trigger program requirements. Online tools that include decision-making flow charts and guidance, such as OSHA’s Respiratory Protection E-Tool, can help inform this determination.    

If you added new cleaning or disinfecting chemicals to the work environment, safety data sheets (SDSs) and hazard information can help you determine whether implementation of or update to a RPP is needed. Equally important is to consider whether you implemented the use of devices such as portable local exhaust systems and electrostatic sprayers, or other new devices that impact airflow or produce particulates, vapors, and fumes.

For those with existing RPPs, it’s important to consider whether changed the types of respirators used at your facility, or if you added new jobs that require respirator use. Many employers had to increase the use of temp workers, and if you added such workers, you may want to consider whether they are appropriately covered by your RPP.

What if my employees want to wear a respirator on a voluntary basis?

Employees may wish to wear a respirator on a voluntary basis. In order for the use to be voluntary and exempt from many of OSHAs respiratory protection requirements two factors must be considered: 1) if there is no atmospheric hazard that necessitates the use or respiratory protection, or 2) if you as an employer are requiring the use of a respirator.

In the age of COVID-19, employees may want to wear a dust mask such as an N95 or KN95. There are some requirements for you as an employer, whether or not you provide the respirators. In this situation, you as the employer need to determine that the masks themselves do not pose a hazard to your employees and you need to provide a copy of Appendix D to 29 CFR 1910.134 to your employees on a one-time basis. As an employer, you would not be required to provide medical evaluations or fit testing for voluntary use of a dust mask.

If an employee wants to voluntarily use a respirator other than a dust mask, the OSHA requirements are more involved, but they still do not rise to the level required under the full RPP. You would be required to perform the following activities:

  • Determine the respirator will not create a hazard for the employee;
  • Provide Appendix D of 1910.134 to the employee choosing to wear a respirator;
  • Ensure the employees using such respirators are medically qualified to wear respirators; and
  • Ensure their respirators are properly cleaned, stored and maintained.

As always, we recommend keeping full documentation of any efforts related to voluntary use of dust masks or respirators by your employees.

You don’t have to go it alone

As businesses and employees continue to adapt, it’s important to step back and reassess health and safety requirements. Preparing an initial RPP or revising an existing one to account for the many changes in the last year can be daunting.

To help employers navigate the complex landscape of respiratory protection requirements, OSHA has issued several enforcement guidance memorandums that can help you make good faith efforts to maintain compliance with the respiratory protection and other health & safety standards applicable to your facility. Be sure to consult either in-house experts or external resources such as a health and safety consultant to be sure yours is up to snuff!

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