How To Decide Which Supplied Air Respirator Is Best

How To Decide Which Supplied Air Respirator Is Best

Choosing the right supplied air respirator involves understanding specific hazards, regulatory requirements, and ensuring proper fit and comfort to maintain worker safety in toxic environments.

Choosing a supplied air respirator (SAR) can be a stressful task. Even if you pay top dollar and shop with a trusted supplier, there’s no guarantee the SAR you choose is best for your situation.

How then can you confirm the supplied air respirator you buy is the best fit for your needs? That’s simple: Let’s discuss what a SAR is, why you might need one (or a lot of them) and the factors to consider before making an informed decision.

What Is a Supplied Air Respirator?

Supplied air respirators are a type of personal protective equipment (PPE) that provides clean, breathable air to the user, even in a toxic environment. Some of the work required in abrasive blasting, construction work, mining and many other jobs would be considerably more difficult (or even impossible) without the assistance of supplied air respirators.

Here are three common situations where using a SAR is either suggested or required:

• Contaminated environments where the air could or would otherwise be harmful to human health

• Inadequate oxygen level environments where the oxygen level currently is or could become deficient

• Confined space entry where there are atmospheric hazards

How Can I Choose the Right Supplied Air Respirator?

Selecting the correct supplied air respirator requires you to assess the hazards, work conditions and regulatory requirements under which the SAR will be deployed. Ideally, you can find a SAR that not only adequately protects the health of your workers but also allows them to perform their tasks effectively and comfortably.

Here is a list of factors to consider and determine before you buy SAR equipment:

• Type of hazard. Understand the specific hazard present in the environment. What contaminants are present and at what concentrations? What is the oxygen level in the environment?

• Duration of exposure. Consider how long workers will be exposed to hazardous conditions. This will impact the type of SAR and air supply you need.

• Mobility requirements. Is the required work stationary, or will the worker need to move? This will determine whether you need a fixed system or a portable system. Air hose length is a maximum of 300 feet, which needs to be considered.

• Work environment conditions. Extreme conditions may require specialized respirators designed to operate effectively in high heat, cold or humidity. Working in confined spaces might necessitate lightweight and compact SAR systems for ease of movement and comfort.

• Fit and comfort. A proper fit is essential for the effectiveness of the respirator. Consider the size and shape of the facepieces and whether they are compatible with other PPE, such as safety goggles and helmets. Comfort is also important, especially for equipment that will be worn for extended periods. 

• Regulatory compliance and standards. Ensure the SAR is approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in the United States. Compliance with industry-specific standards may also be required, depending on the work environment. Make sure the SAR you choose meets those requirements.

• Maintenance and training requirements. Consider the maintenance needs of the SAR system. Some systems may require more frequent maintenance or replacement parts. Training for workers on how to use and maintain the SAR properly is essential for safety. The complexity of the system can influence the extent of training needed. Medical clearance for the worker and fit testing of the respirator is also required. 

• Cost and availability. Evaluate the total cost of ownership, including maintenance and replacement parts. While cost should not be the primary consideration when it comes to safety, it is still a factor. It is even possible to spend less to get the best SAR for your situation.

Choose a respirator that not only protects workers but also allows them to perform their tasks effectively and comfortably. Consulting with safety experts and manufacturers can provide valuable insights into the most appropriate SAR system for specific work environments. But you should first consider and note your response to these factors.

What Are the Types of SARS Available?

These systems can vary significantly in design and benefits offered. Each has limitations, depending on the work environment and task requirements. 

Here are the two main types of SARs available:

• Continuous flow SAR. This system provides a continuous flow of air to the respirator headpiece from an external source, such as an air compressor or pressurized tank.

• Pressure demand SAR. This system supplies air only when the wearer inhales, creating a pressure inside the mask that can be higher or lower than the outside environment. It requires a tight-fitting facepiece.

Choosing the Right SAR Helmet or Hood

Supplied air respirators can be paired with various types of helmets and hoods to protect workers from inhaling hazardous substances. The choice between different headgear options depends on the specific requirements of the work environment, the level of mobility needed and personal comfort preferences.

• Full facepiece helmets. These are rigid helmets that cover the entire face and sometimes the head, offering both respiratory protection and head protection from impacts and debris.

• Loose-fitting hoods. These hoods cover the head and neck and sometimes extend to cover the shoulders and upper body. They are designed to be used with SAR systems that supply a continuous flow of air.

• Half-mask or full-face masks. These facepieces cover the nose and mouth (half-mask) or the entire face (full-face), connecting directly to the air supply hose. They require a tight seal to the face to be effective.

• Integrated helmet and visor systems. These systems offer a combination of respiratory protection with a full-face visor and head protection, integrating multiple safety features into one unit.

Each type of headgear offers a unique balance of protection, comfort and usability. Factors like the duration of use, the need for mobility and the presence of other hazards (e.g., risk of head impacts) will significantly influence the best choice of headgear for a given situation.

How to Choose the Correct Air Supply for SARS

• Compressed air tank. Can provide a continuous supply of high-quality air when filled and maintained properly. The duration of the supply is limited to the tank volume.

• Air compressors. Can provide a continuous supply of air for extended periods to multiple users. Air compressors are typically noisy, however, and you’ll need a reliable power supply. Air quality is dependent on the surrounding environment and must meet the Grade D breathing air criteria.

• Ambient air pump. Sources the surrounding air, filters it and delivers to users in situations where the air quality is acceptable but may not be safe to breathe without filtration. Also suitable for when long-duration respiratory protection is needed. Does require a reliable source of power.

General Considerations for Selecting SAR Air Supplies

Here are the four bottom-line steps to follow when selecting SAR equipment:

• Assess the environment. Understand the specific hazards and conditions of the work environment to choose the most appropriate air supply.

• Evaluate the task requirements. Consider the duration, mobility needs and the number of users to ensure the selected air supply meets operational demands.

• Compliance and standards. Ensure the air supply system complies with industry standards and regulations for respiratory protection.

• Training and maintenance. Factor in the need for user training, medical clearance, fit testing and ongoing maintenance requirements to keep the system in optimal condition.

Choosing the right air supply for a supplied air respirator system is a crucial part of workplace safety. Because it requires careful consideration of the specific needs and constraints of the work environment, consult an expert such as a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) or other qualified safety professional.

This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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