Respirators are crucial pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE), necessary whenever airborne particulate matter might be inhaled into the lungs. Across a variety of industries—healthcare, construction, manufacturing, emergency response—respirators are used to keep workers safe. There are two basic types of respirators. The first type removes contaminants out of the air. These include particulate respirators (like N95 masks and MAXAIR) that filter out airborne particles and “gas masks” that remove chemicals and gases. The second type supplies clean air directly into the mask. These include airline respirators and self-contained breathing apparatuses (like a fireman might use).
In healthcare settings, the faceplate type is most common. A good-fitting mask is sufficient in most cases to offer protection against airborne transmission of infectious agents. Of the seven types of particulate filtering respirators, the N95 is the most common and filters out at least 95% of airborne particles. It is designed to fit tightly on the face, creating a seal around the respirator. N95s are single use PPE and users must develop competencies around donning and doffing them properly. If they are not used carefully, they can transmit infection. Their one great advantage is cost; they can be purchased easily and in bulk.
Powered-air purifying respirators (PAPR) provide several advantages over N95 respirators. They do not require fit testing and can be used by individuals with facial hair. They also offer a higher level of protection and cause less heart, lung, and heat stress than a faceplate respirator does. Additionally, they offer advantages to patients, who are better able to communicate with hospital personnel in PAPRs than in face-obscuring N95s. They are, however, an expensive initial cost outlay and have the same restrictions in donning and doffing (i.e. incorrect usage can transmit infection).
While NIOSH tests and certifies respirators, proper usage depends on employers and workers. Respirators are not the first line of defense—good hierarchy of controls should mitigate most hazards before PPE is even necessary—but they are an important piece of the puzzle in keeping workers safe and disease free.