How to protect your workers from respiratory hazards?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires companies to protect their employees from hazards in the workplace. One of the most common hazard types are the respiratory contaminants. Such contaminants can be found in the form of dusts, fumes, gases, mists, smokes, vapors or even oxygen-deficient environments, and can be harmful to the workers. Therefore, the presence of such substances, and the exposure to them, has to be reduced in order to ensure the safety and health of all workers.
When respiratory hazards are present in the workplace, the employer must use at least one of the next methods in order to reduce the exposure to them:
- Elimination: The process of removing a hazard from the workplace. It is the most preferred to control a risk and must be used whenever possible since it implies that the hazard is no longer present. This method also considers substitution of a hazardous substance for another less harmful. For example, the substitution of organic solvents for water-detergent solutions (if possible).
- Engineering control: These methods involve built-in mechanisms that are part of the design of the work facilities, the equipment/machinery or the process used in order to minimize the hazardous substance. Some examples include local exhaust ventilation, enclosure and isolation barriers from the emission source, and process control like using electric motors instead of diesel ones to eliminate harmful emissions.
- Work practice control: Modifying the way tasks are performed in order to reduce exposure to respiratory hazards is regarded as work practice control. Examples are: education and training about occupational safety and health, establishing and maintaining housekeeping programs, correctly using, cleaning and storing equipment, training for emergency incidents, etc.
- Administrative control: It implies limiting the exposure time of workers to the hazards or reducing the number of workers that can work in the same area simultaneously. Some examples are: restricted access to some work areas, restricted tasks to only qualified personnel, job-rotations, and any other rules that could minimize the exposure. However, these measures are not recommended in isolation, since the hazard itself is not removed from the workplace and are very difficult to implement properly.
- Personal protective equipment: When these previously mentioned methods cannot properly protect employers, be implemented, or be afforded, the employer must provide workers with an appropriate respiratory equipment to protect their health. Respirators must be selected considering: nature of the hazard, concentration, permissible exposure limits, time period the respirator is used, work activities, and physical characteristics of the respirator, among other considerations. Employees have to be medically evaluated for the use of respirators through a respirator clearance test that must be examined by a PLHCP.
Remember that employees are the most valuable resource of any company, so their safety and health have to be taken seriously. This is why OSHA requires employers to implement as many safety controls as possible. And whenever respirators must be worn in the workplace, it is the employer’s obligation to provide workers with respirator medical evaluations, fit tests, and adequate education and training for the proper use of respirators.