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On The Farm

Why Do You Need a Respirator?

Almost every day, agricultural workers are exposed to respiratory hazards. From grain dusts and molds during harvest to pesticides and dusty fields while planting, concentrations of dangerous materials in the air can pose a serious health risk. Take a look at this review of personal protective equipment (PPE) to get a better understanding of when to use respirators on the farm and ranch.

PPE is specialized clothing or equipment worn by employees for protection against health and safety hazards. Respiratory PPE, or protective devices that shield the lungs from inhaling dangerous air, come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They rank as some of the most important pieces of protective gear anyone can wear while working in unsafe environments. When used correctly, these devices can effectively prevent workers from inhaling hazardous airborne materials. There’s a wide variety of respiratory PPE options to choose from and each one has its own role to play in keeping employees safe. But how do you know which one to use and when? We’re here to help.

Respirator Safety Precautions and Endorsements

Farm and ranch owners should be aware thatit’s the employer’s responsibility to ensure workers are trained on safely putting on and taking off protective gear, according to the Operational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). Employers are also required to provide worksite-specific training to ensure PPE is being used correctly. OSHA offers a suite of educational training videos that can be used to teach employees how to properly use a respirator. When shopping, start by looking for a label certifying compliance with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Select devices that carry these important endorsements while making a purchase.

Respirators are only effective when paired with the right type chemical filtration cartridge, and that’s where you need to do your homework. Start by taking a look at the safety data sheet (SDS) prepared by the hazardous materials manufacturer for a better understanding of what chemicals your workers will be exposed to, and source your PPE accordingly. Importers and manufacturers will often update SDS details online, so be sure to check their website to get up-to-date product reports and advisories.

Respirator Types by Category

Figuring out which respirator to use for a particular job can be a job in itself. In some cases, you’ll have to understand the chemical makeup of a product in order to protect against inhaling dangerous fumes. Other times, mold and dust are at issue. Here’s a brief review of some popular types of masks, protective systems and their uses available on the market today.

It’s absolutely essential that you know what kind of respirator to use and when. Silage dust, airborne mold, oxygen-deprived manure pits, concrete dust and agricultural chemicals are each harmful in their own way. Defending against these dangers requires that PPEs are used correctly and consistently each time exposure is expected. There are two main types of respirators, and each have their own job to do.

Air purifying respirators. These are systems that use membranes, filters, chemical cartridges and canisters to filter contaminants from breathable air. These respirators clean the air in the immediate vicinity of the worker by filtering out impurities. Clean air is pulled through the filter either by the act of breathing or with the assistance of a fan that drives local air in a filter and hose to the worker. Uses range from light filtration for dust to chemically preventing otherwise toxic fumes from being inhaled. Importantly, these filters require normal, ambient oxygen levels to be present in the environment where the respirator will be used and should never be used in oxygen deprived locations. These masks are best suited for healthy individuals and should only be used by individuals who are not currently suffering from any respiratory or cardiac issues

Atmosphere-supplying respirators. These sophisticated devices deliver clean air from an uncontaminated source, like a pressurized tank or through a hose that’s delivering fresh air into a sealed mask where little to no breathable oxygen is present. You’ll recognize these systems — they’re similar to the SCUBA gear divers wear when exploring the depths of the ocean. These consist of a full face mask or a helmet that seals around the neck, with a hose connecting to a tank.

Air Purifying Respirators

Each filter type is rated with its own specifications on exactly what it can safely filter out. Although these systems do not provide oxygen, they range from light duty to a powerful defense against noxious fumes and otherwise dangerous chemicals. Note that features like facial hair, earrings, head scarves, wigs and facial piercings can sometimes prevent these systems from working correctly, so be sure to have employees use a mask that will safely accommodate their circumstance.

Nuisance dust asks. This mask is as simple as they get. Comprised of a lightweight paper filter and a single elastic band, these masks are only intended to provide minimal protection against particles that you might encounter while sweeping up the barn or garage. Nuisance masks offer almost no protection against smaller particles in the air.

Air purifying respirators. Use these as the next line of defense in areas where concentrations of airborne debris are found, like working with sawdust, lofted into the air. These masks can be found on construction workers installing insulation or working in dusty environments. Designed as a thicker barrier against dust or particulate, these masks usually ship with two elastic straps that tightly seal the area around the nose and mouth. They’re not to be used for cleaning volatile chemicals from the air, but can be worn when light fumes or mist are present like spraying paint.

Types of Chemical Respirators and Breathing Systems

Offering a significant amount of breathing protection, chemical respirators and breathing systems can filter down to the micron (a cool word for super small). Both the half and full mask respirator options use a chemical cartridge to scrub substances out of the air as workers breathe. They consist of a facepiece, usually made from silicon, and a one-way valve that regulates inhaled air through the filter. Be sure to take time and fit the mask carefully to employees faces by adjusting the straps ensuring a tight seal.

The disposable filter will attach to the front of the mask and they are frequently color-coded in line with the type of gas or vapor that they filter. Also be sure to verify that your target filter can be used in areas that contain airborne oils, if applicable. Cartridges should be replaced after 8 hours of use, or when chemicals penetrate through the filter, known as “breakthrough.” Tell your employees that if they begin to taste or smell the contaminant or if dizziness or irritation occur, they should move to clean air and replace the cartridge before returning to work. And when swapping out a cartridge, always remember to remove the protective cover.

Half mask respirator. These wrap around the nose and mouth leaving half the face unprotected. They’re for use when irritation to the eye is not anticipated.

Full mask respirator.

Consisting of a seal extending from the chin across the cheeks to the forehead, these masks are employed when chemical exposure is expected to irritate the eyes, when working around diesel fumes for instance.

Gas masks. The cartridges found in gas masks contain more chemical absorbing material than full or half masks. Usually a full mask respirator, they’re suitable for use in areas where gas concentrations are high or extremely toxic. They are very capable of filtering gas and volatile chemicals from the air.

Powered air-purifying respirators (PARs). Also known as atmosphere-supplying respirators, these systems use a fan to pull air through the filter and provide a steady stream of clean air into the facemask. This system benefits those with respiratory or cardiac issues because the ease of breathing in and out is much less challenging than those listed above.

Atmosphere-Supplying Respirators

Recognizable as the breathing systems used by fire fighters, atmosphere-supplying respirators deliver compressed, clean air through pressurized tanks. In addition to being quite expensive, it’s important that employees receive specific training on the use of these systems. That’s because they’re used in circumstances where there is no breathable air, like sealed silos or manure pits. The big difference with these is that atmosphere-supplying respirators do not use an onboard filter. Clean air is compressed into a tank or delivered through a hose to the worker.

Air-Supplied Respirators. Self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) is an in-line respirator that can be outfitted with communication systems, as the mask encases the face and greatly impedes the voice from projecting. Training is extremely important with these devices. Topics should cover the storage, maintenance, use, and disposal of the system. Find training details on the manufacturer’s website or in the product user guide. Oxygen-deprived areas can be very dangerous to workers — if used incorrectly, the respirator may not adequately protect workers, and serious injury or worse can result.

Respirator Health Implications

As breathing with a respirator is more difficult than breathing without one, those with respiratory conditions like emphysema, asthma and lung disease may experience serious medical conditions when using systems that require the worker to draw breath through a cartridge or membrane. Elderly people are likewise at an increased risk. OSHA requires that all employees be medically evaluated in order to identify if their health will disqualify them from using a respirator. So, as soon as you know your employees will need breathing protection, be sure that they’ve been cleared by a qualified physician before they put on a respirator.

Hopefully, you’re a little wiser now about how respirators work and when to use them. Also, remember that respirators will not protect the skin against absorbing dangerous chemicals or airborne contaminants. Protective clothing, gloves, boots and goggles are just some of the items that may be required to get the job done correctly.

While you’re reviewing how to make your farm or ranch a safer place for your employees, consider revisiting your liability coverage. Protect yourself from the unexpected with customized coverage that matches your needs. Contact an agent today to build coverage that’s right for you, your employees and your farm.

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Related Topics: Farm Insurance , Farm Safety , Employees , Farm Succession Plan