A guide to Respiratory Protective Equipment

A guide to Respiratory Protective Equipment

Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) protects staff from exposure to hazardous substances which cannot be avoided in the workplace. Here’s a guide to what you need to consider when using and purchasing RPE.

Before you consider RPE Equipment

When carrying out a COSHH risk assessment (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002) for your workplace, the first choice should always to be avoid tasks which carry risks requiring use of RPE altogether. If the task is unavoidable, then consider using different materials or processes which would eliminate or reduce respiratory hazards.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) common examples of tasks which may expose workers to respiratory hazards include: cutting a material such as stone or wood; using a product containing volatile solvents; welding stainless steel. Workers may also need to work in areas where oxygen levels are or may become low, such as confined spaces.

If an essential task still carries some risk of exposure to workers breathing in hazardous substances, however, then a risk management strategy needs to be implemented which involved isolating and enclosing the areas where this risk occurs, and doing whatever is possible to suppress or extract hazardous gas or substances from the work area.

Choosing the right RPE

If it’s not possible to remove all hazardous gases or contaminants, then the next step is to clearly assess the amount and nature of the hazardous materials still present so that you can determine Required Protection Factor (RPF). This is necessary to help you choose the right RPE. Measurements should be taken using equipment such as personal dosimeters or air sampling pumps.

You will need to know:

the concentration of the hazard

the performance of different respirator types.

the type of tasks the wearer will be carrying out

The work environment

The personal needs and characteristics of the person wearing the RPE

Different types of RPE

Respirators (filtering devices) use filters to remove contaminants from the air being breathed in. Non-powered respirators where air is drawn through the filter by breathing. Powered respirators use a motor to send a supply of clean air through the filter.

Breathing apparatus needs a supply of breathing-quality air from a source such as a cylinder or an air compressor.

HSE divide RPE into two main categories.

Masks or tight-fitting facepieces which rely on having a good seal around the face. A face fit test should be carried out to ensure the RPE can protect the wearer (see paragraphs 71 and 72 of the HSE guide.


Fit test kit to perform qualitative fit tests which allows employers to manage their own fit testing requirements

Loose-fitting facepieces must be used with powered respirators or breathing apparatus as they rely on enough clean air being provided to the wearer to prevent contaminants getting in.

RPE must meet the following criteria:

It must adequately control inhalation exposure to provide the wearer with effective protection;

be suitable for the intended use;

be CE-marked or of an approved type/standard approved by HSE;

be used by properly trained people who are supervised;