To Breathe or Not to Breathe

By Jim Gillam

This article originally appeared in The Chimney Sweep News (SNEWS) - April 2004

“If you aren’t using a respirator right now, you want to think about something – anything – to protect yourself,” implored Grant Cooper as he instructed chimney professionals gathered at the Northeast Regional Chimney Sweep convention in Sturbridge, Massachusetts in late January, 2004.

Grant Cooper of Bacou-Dalloz [], the world’s largest manufacturer of personal protective equipment, was joined in the presentation by Ewen Cameron, Director of Sales for Galeton Gloves [], a purveyor of “the finest gloves and work gear since 1908.”

Why Use Respiratory Protection

“You want to protect against hazardous airborne contaminants,” Grant declared. Inhalation of harmful dusts, fogs, fumes, mists, gases, smokes, sprays, or vapors may cause immediate or eventual discomfort, disease and/or death.

In order to reduce the incidence of occupational injury and illness, U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Safety & Health Regulation 29 CFR 1910 governs respiratory protection in the workplace. []

The regulation states in part that “Respirators shall be provided by the employer when such equipment is necessary to protect the health of the employee. The employer shall provide the respirators which are applicable and suitable for the purpose intended. The employer shall be responsible for the establishment and maintenance of a respiratory protection program which shall include the requirements outlined in paragraph (c) of this section.

Compliance with OSHA regulations includes developing and implementing a written protection program. The program should include medical evaluations of employees, offering an appropriate selection of respirators, fit testing, training, maintenance and storage, a cartridge replacement schedule and accurate recordkeeping.

“If there is any way to change your work process to eliminate the exposure to those hazards, that is something you should address,” Grant advised.

Where and When to Use a Respirator

Chimney professionals are commonly exposed to airborne soot and ash resulting from wood, oil and/or gas combustion. Chimney sweeps, duct cleaners and HVAC workers may also be exposed to animal droppings, asbestos, fumes and vapors from paints, solvents and water repellents, and numerous other hazards.

In selecting respiratory protection equipment, the employer must identify and evaluate the respiratory hazard(s) in the workplace, according to OSHA. Employers must make a “reasonable estimate” of the employee exposures anticipated to occur as a result of those hazards, including those likely to be encountered in reasonably foreseeable emergency situations, and must also identify the physical state and chemical form of such contaminant(s).

“We cannot, standing in this room today, tell you what respiratory products you should use in a specific situation,” Ewen disclaimed. “That is highly dependent on the environment and on factors such as how much oxygen is in the air in the environment; how enclosed the environment is; and what concentration of different chemicals exists in the environment.”

In industrial settings, air sampling or dosimeters are used to quantify the volume of contaminants in the air. Grant warned that the nose is not an effective gauge of chemical contamination. For example, he noted that hydrogen sulfide, with its characteristic odor of rotten eggs, deadens the sense of smell over time and becomes unnoticeable.

After discussion with the chimney professionals in the room, Ewen and Grant recognized the impracticality of actually measuring the level of contaminants in our workplaces given the ever changing locations and exposures.

“If I was you and I was doing your job, I would have the best protection I could,” Ewen recommended. “I would have a supplied air respirator with filter. Regarding filters, I would make sure I covered all the possible contaminants that I could come in contact with.” He said the cost is around $300 for that type of system. “There might be one job where you just encounter some wood ash and a little paper particulate respirator would do fine,” he surmised. “But you don’t know what you are going to walk into.”

MSDS sheets for products used in the work place will provide instruction on personal protection that should be used during application.

Types of Respiratory Protection

Because respirators provide different levels of protection, they are divided into classes, and each respirator class has been assigned a protection factor to help compare its protective capabilities with other respirator classes.

Examples of activities for which respirators with higher assigned protection factors may be more important include cleaning chimneys and working in attics and poultry houses,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Regardless of which respirator is selected, the device should be NIOSH-certified and used in the context of a respiratory protection program. Important components of such a program are facepiece fit testing, respirator maintenance, user training, medical evaluation of users, respiratory protection program evaluation, and recordkeeping.

Air purifying respirators employ filters and prefilters to remove particulates. Chemical cartridges may also be used to remove gases and vapors. Chemical cartridges are color coded for their purpose. Whatever the brand, “organic vapor is always going to have a black cartridge,” Grant noted.

Air delivery may be power assisted or not. Because inhalation creates a slight negative pressure inside the facepiece of non-powered, air-purifying respirators compared with outside, these respirators are also called negative-pressure respirators.

“Anything that is NIOSH-approved will be stamped right on the mask with the level of approval it meets,” Ewen noted.


A full-facepiece respirator extends from the forehead to under the chin. It also has the built-in benefit of providing eye protection as well as respiratory protection. Various cartridges and pre-filters are available for specific exposures.

A powered air-purifying respirator uses a small battery-operated blower to draw dusty air through attached filters and provides clean air at a constant flow rate. This flow rate is usually greater than a wearer’s breathing rate. Consequently, gaps in a face-to-facepiece seal will leak air outward rather than inward.

According to NIOSH, “Unless the results of quantitative tests suggest that a person wearing an air-purifying, full-facepiece respirator can achieve an outstanding facepiece seal, a powered air-purifying respirator with a full facepiece should be chosen for extremely dusty work.”


“Partly because a good fit is easier with a full-facepiece, negative-pressure respirator, this type has a higher assigned protection factor than half-facepiece types,” according to NIOSH. “A complete face-to-facepiece seal is essential for good protection.”

“You can get a lot better seal with a full face respirator than you can with a half mask respirator,” Grant affirmed.


A half-facepiece respirator covers the wearer’s nose and mouth.

An elastomeric half-facepiece respirator consists of a reusable elastomeric or rubber facepiece and replaceable filters and cartridges.

Elastomeric facepieces have adjustable straps, which should allow a respirator wearer to make a complete, yet comfortable, facepiece seal. Head strap tension is important for achieving a complete face-to-facepiece seal without sacrificing comfort. “They give you a little more protection and more versatility,” than an N-95 rated mask, said Grant.


Check the label closely to determine whether this is an NIOSH-certified N-95 rated particulate respirator or merely an unrated dust mask. Respirators must be NIOSH-certified to comply with OSHA regulations.

Similar in appearance to a simple dust mask but with two straps to ensure a tighter fit, the disposable N-95 rated mask is “the most basic mask that is NIOSH rated. It will protect against 95% of particles larger than 3 microns in diameter, assuming it has a good fit,” Ewen said.

“It will protect against water borne particles,” he added, “but it does nothing to protect against oil. If you are in an environment where there is oil in the air, you cannot use anything that starts with ‘N’.

“If you’re not using respirators right now for protection against particulates, then this is at least something to protect yourself,” Ewen said. “It depends on what you need protection against, and it depends on whether you can get a good fit with it or not. It is important to get as good a fit as possible on your face.

“This N-95 rated mask is what the World Health Organization recommended for protection against the SARS virus,” Ewen noted. “During the SARS crisis, no one could get N-95 respirators anywhere. Production was booked out for six months. Now there is a glut of them and warehouses are full; but if SARS comes back there will be a shortage again.

“Watch out for dust masks,” he cautioned. “If it just says, ‘dust mask’ and doesn’t have a NIOSH approval, stay away. A dust mask is NOT a respiratory product,” Ewen emphasized.


“During inhalation, contaminated air can easily enter the facepiece of a negative-pressure respirator at gaps between the facepiece and the respirator wearer’s face,” warns NIOSH. “Therefore, a complete face-to-facepiece seal is essential for good protection. Getting a seal at the nose is difficult for some people, and it is probably the most frequent location of leaks.”

When wearing a negative pressure respirator, “there is naturally going to be some resistance to breathing,” Grant said. “You are breathing through the filters, and you may be breathing in through an inhalation valve and breathing out through an exhalation valve. You may find yourself fatiguing a little faster.”

According to OSHA, “When a worker’s medical condition would prohibit restrictive breathing conditions, negative pressure respirators would not be an appropriate choice.”


A constant flow hood with supplied air is an alternative to a full face piece that offers several advantages. Due to its loose fit and positive pressure, it can accommodate facial hair and eyewear. No fit testing is required.

“If you don’t have a good fit,” with a negative pressure respirator, “you end up cranking that thing so tight, you have an imprint for four days around your face from sucking that thing in,” Grant quipped. “A hood is going to be more comfortable, a looser fit. It gives you protection from the neck up. It’s a good way to go.”

Worker Preference

Worker preferences should be a consideration during the respirator selection process,” states OSHA. “Among air purifying respirators, powered air purifying helmets have been subjectively rated the best for breathing ease, skin comfort, and in-mask temperature and humidity while filtering facepieces rated high for lightness and convenience. Each, however, has its own drawbacks, and all these factors should be taken into account during selection.”

To ensure a proper fit, “OSHA says you should offer your employees more than one brand of respirators,” Grant noted.

Fit Testing

Fit testing using irritant smoke or aromatic oil is a required component of an OSHA respirator program. Fit testing kits, consisting of a hood, two types of odor, an odor dispenser, instructions and paperwork for OSHA, are available for $100-$200, Ewen said.

Additionally, “for all tight-fitting respirators, the employer shall ensure that employees perform a user seal check each time they put on the respirator,” states OSHA.

“If you take your respirator off and your face is dirty under the respirator, it is not a good fit,” advised Ewen.

Facial Hair

If facial hair or other factors prevent obtaining an airtight seal, you must use a positive pressure, air-supplied respirator, according to OSHA.

NIOSH cautions, “Even the stubble of a few days’ growth, absence of one or both dentures, and deep facial scars can also prevent a complete seal."


Employees who will use respirators must be trained upon initial use and annually according to OSHA regulations. “Depending on the type of respirator,” Grant said, “you need to do the donning – how to put it on and take it off, the user seal check or fit test, how to use it, how to change the filters, how to clean and disinfect, how to repair and maintain your respirator, how to store and dispose of it, and do monthly inspections on it.” Training must be provided at no cost to the employee.

Maintenance and Storage

If the employee detects vapor or gas breakthrough, changes in breathing resistance, or leakage of the facepiece, the employer must replace or repair the respirator before allowing the employee to return to the work area,” OSHA states.

Telltale odor or taste is a sign that a chemical cartridge should be replaced. “These things are designed to keep that smell or taste out of there,” Grant cautioned. “If you are wearing your respirator and you begin to taste or smell, experience nausea, irritation or anything out of the ordinary, it is time to swap out those cartridges.”

OSHA requires employees “To wash their faces and respirator facepieces as necessary to prevent eye or skin irritation associated with respirator use.”

“Do not attempt to wash or clean cartridges or filters,” Grant cautioned.

He advised storing your respirator in a zip-lock plastic pouch, and replacing the bag at least weekly.

Record Keeping

OSHA requires the employer to establish and retain written information regarding medical evaluations, fit testing, and the respirator program.

A Sweep’s Warning

“Remember that the dust you can see can hurt you, but the dust you can’t see can kill you,” wrote Ernie Hostedler (Clean Sweep Chimney Service, Inc., Milford, DE) in the August 2003 issue of New York News, a member service of the New York State Chimney Sweep Guild. “A period on this page is equal to about 50 of the dust particles you can’t see. If you only inhale the dust equal to the size of a period on each job of the day, all weeks, all year, how much will you inhale? By my figuring, you will inhale about the size of a silver dollar.

“Ever clear your sinuses after a job? That’s just the part that didn’t make it to your lungs.

“I’ll tell you the same thing I tell my technicians. ‘Guys, my first goal is for you to grow old enough to see your grandchildren. My second goal is for you to have enough lung power to play with them.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2004 issue of The Chimney Sweep News (SNEWS).
The Chimney Sweep News is an independent trade journal for chimney professionals.


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