What is RPE, or Respiratory Protective Equipment?

Home H&S What is RPE, or Respiratory Protective Equipment?

RPE is there to:

  • Protect the wearer from a variety of hazards;
  • Suit a variety of work situations;
  • Match the specific requirements of the wearer

Work activities may result in harmful substances contaminating the air in the form of dust, mist, gas or fume. For example:

  • Cutting a material such as stone, concrete or wood
  • Using a liquid containing volatile solvents
  • Handling a dusty powder

Workers may also need to work in areas where oxygen levels are low, for example confined spaces, such as a chamber or tank.

RPE is designed to protect the wearer from these hazards.

You will require RPE that is adequate and suitable to ensure the wearer is protected. This means:

  • Adequate – It is right for the hazard and reduces exposure to the level required to protect the wearer’s health.
  • Suitable – It is right for the wearer, task and environment, such that the wearer can work freely and without additional risks due to the RPE.

To select RPE that will protect the wearer you will need a basic understanding of:

  • The hazardous substance and the amount in the air (exposure);
  • The form of the substance in the air (e.g. Gas, particle, vapour);
  • The type of work being carried out;
  • Any specific wearer requirements, such as other ppe or a need for spectacles.

There are two main types of RPE are respirators and breathing apparatus.

Respirators are classed as filtering devices and use filters to remove contaminants from the air being breathed in. These devices can either be:

  • Non-powered respirators are those that rely on the wearer’s breathing to draw air through the filter; or
  • Powered respirators are those that use a motor to pass air through the filter to give a supply of clear air.

The breathing apparatus is a device that needs a supply of breathing quality air from a source independent of it. Examples are air cylinders or air compressors.

Breathing Apparatus and Respirators are available in many different styles and these divide into two main groups:

  • Masks (or tight fitting facepieces) rely on a good seal being present with the wearer’s face. Both non-powered and non-powered respirators and breathing apparatus are available. To ensure that that RPE can protect the wearer, a face fit test needs to be carried out.
  • Loose fitting face-pieces reply on enough clean air being provided to the person wearing it to prevent any kind of containment leaking in (these are only available as powered breathing apparatus or powered respirators). Some examples are hoods, helmets and suits.

When should RPE be used?

  • If you might still breath in any type of contaminated air, despite other controls that may well be in place e.g. extraction systems;
  • If there is short-term or infrequent exposure and using other controls that could be impractical;
  • Whilst putting other controls in place;
  • If you need to provide RPE for safe exit in an emergency;
  • Where there is a temporary failure of controls or you need to provide RPE for emergency work;
  • When emergency rescue by trained personnel is necessary.
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Elena Boura