Health & Safety: Respirators – The VIP of PPE

Health & Safety: Respirators – The VIP of PPE

Painters in collision repair shops have the heaviest exposure to isocyanates, but technicians can be exposed to them around the shop as they’re mixing paints, cleaning paint guns, cleaning spills and breathing in paint mists. That's why respirators are a must.


In the Health & Safety columns in the September and November 2015 issues of BodyShop Business, we talked about the importance of using personal protective equipment (PPE). The first column addressed the reasons why employees need it, and the next column talked about specific types of PPE, including eye and face protection, hand and arm protection, hard hats and other ways to protect employees from the hazards of a shop. There was one notable, very important piece of equipment missing from those columns: the respirator. It’s so important that it deserves its own column (or two).


OSHA estimates that 5 million workers are required to wear respirators in 1.3 million workplaces throughout the U.S. In a shop, technicians are exposed to many hazards that require the use of a respirator, including dust, airborne biological hazards, mists, fumes, sprays and other airborne particles. The biggest of these are isocyanates, toxic and reactive chemicals that are present in the hardeners or catalysts of polyurethane-based two-part paints.

Painters in collision repair shops have the heaviest exposure, but technicians can be exposed to isocyanates around the shop as they’re mixing paints, cleaning paint guns, cleaning spills and breathing in paint mists.

Isocyanates and Hazcom

Isocyanates are powerful irritants to the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose and throat, as well as the gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts. They’re a leading cause of workplace asthma, which may start at work or within several hours after leaving work. People who never had asthma can develop it due to workplace exposures, and those with asthma may find that their condition worsens due to workplace exposures. Work-related asthma may result in long-term lung damage, loss of work days, disability or death.

Employers must comply with the OSHA Hazard Communication standard (29 CFR 1910.1200), but in particular, employers must ensure that employees exposed to isocyanates are trained in and have access to:

  • The specific nature of the operations in their workplace where exposure may occur
  • Safety Data Sheets (SDS) for chemicals containing isocyanates
  • The signs and symptoms of isocyanate exposure
  • The importance of avoiding skin contact when working with isocyanates
  • The engineering controls the employer is using to reduce employee exposures to isocyanates
  • Specific work practices that should be used to reduce exposure to isocyanates
  • The use of appropriate protective equipment, including respirators and skin protection, and the limitations of that equipment
  • Methods that may be used to detect the presence of isocyanates in the workplace, such as workplace monitoring

Respirators and OSHA Standards

OSHA and other programs such as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) are working to reduce exposures to isocyanates, and closed systems and ventilation should be the principal method for minimizing exposure in the workplace. Beyond that, employers are required by law to provide employees with proper breathing equipment via the Respiratory Protection standard. The standard is intended to improve the protection of employee health, promote more effective use of respirators, and make it easier for employers to understand and comply.

As part of the standard, employers must develop a written respiratory protection program, specific to the particular workplace. In addition, employers must assign a qualified program administrator to run and evaluate the program regularly. The program must include information about:

  • Selecting respirators appropriate to the workplace and the particular hazards to which employees will be exposed.
  • Training employees in the proper use of respirators (including putting them on, removing them and checking the seals), limitations and maintenance. After training, workers must be able to demonstrate knowledge of why a respirator is needed, how it should be maintained and what steps to take when respirators fail to function or in emergency situations. The level of detail of the training will vary depending on the particular workplace. Also, training must be tailored to employees’ education level and language background. Like most other workplace training, employees must be retrained annually and when changes occur in the workplace.
  • Providing medical evaluation of employees who must use respirators to determine that employee’s ability to use a respirator. For example, some medical conditions such as respiratory diseases or neurological disorders such as epilepsy may interfere with the safe use of a respirator. Medical evaluations must happen before the employee is fit-tested and uses the respirator for the first time.
  • Fit testing tight-fitting respirators. Fit-testing determines whether the respirator forms a seal on the user’s face.
  • Ensuring adequate air supply, quantity and flow of breathing air for atmosphere-supplying respirators.
  • Establishing and adhering to schedules for cleaning, disinfecting, storing, inspecting, repairing, removing from service or discarding, and otherwise maintaining respirators. Regular care and maintenance is important to ensure that the respirator functions as designed and protects the user from the threat of illness or death. Proper storage protects the equipment from contamination, dust, sunlight, extreme temperatures, excessive moisture, damaging chemicals and other destructive conditions.
  • Using respirators properly in routine situations, as well as in reasonably foreseeable emergencies.
  • Regularly evaluating the effectiveness of the program. The frequency is not specified in the OSHA standard; it depends on your particular workplace.


Recordkeeping for your respiratory program is particularly important. In addition to the written program, employers must retain records of medical evaluations, and these must be made available to employees. Fit-testing records also must be retained until the employee’s next testing.

The Respiratory Protection standard is designed to protect the employer and its employees. In exchange, shops can expect many tangible benefits, including reduced absenteeism and employee turnover, reduced workers’ compensation costs and avoidance of OSHA fines. In our next column, we’ll talk about the types of respirators used in shops.

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