"Why don't employers give their workers the best respiratory protection?" This is a question that we run into all the time. It basically comes down to two issues: fit testing and cost.
Fit Testing Many employers believe that if they are not offering an approved mask to their workers, they don’t need to worry about fit testing. Unfortunately, this is a misconception. Since the only way to know for sure that a mask is doing its job is through fit testing, OSHA makes it a mandatory part of any respirator program. Depending on how strictly you interpret the regulations, employers should not offer a non-approved respirator to their employees in the first place.
Basic fit testing is a little time consuming, but it’s not difficult. Kits are available on our site, or it can be performed as a service by a variety of industrial hygienists. Many safety folks like to have the documentation for employee files.
Cost The second issue is cost. There is the cost associated with fit testing and the cost of the masks themselves. In general, lower quality masks are cheaper. Our customers, and even some suppliers, use the term ‘dust mask’ freely. However, technically a dust mask is not a device approved by NIOSH. The simple, lightweight mask with a single strap is not recognized as a device that can protect your lungs, but it’s cheap! For only a few cents more, real protection can be had. Boxes of 20 are typically around $17/box.
The purpose of any mask is to keep you from inhaling bad stuff, but the poor fit and low quality filter material of the dust mask don’t protect the wearer from vapors. If you’re doing a relatively simple task, like sweeping out the garage or running a leaf blower, and just want to keep large particles of dust out of your face, then it’s a good option.
By contrast, a disposable respirator with an N95 rating has been tested and recognized as meeting certain thresholds of filter efficiency and mask fit. This level of performance is our most popular category of disposable respirators.
This level of technology and testing does increase the cost. Our most popular basic N95 mask is the 3M 8210, and they sell for about $19 per box of 20 masks. Optional features, including exhalation valves, can increase this cost.
The cost per mask, in very general terms is about $.14 for the dust mask and $.64 for the N95 disposable respirator. When ordering a large quantity of masks, this difference in cost adds up.
If you have any questions about which mask is right for your job, please give us a call! Reduced respiratory function over time may be attributed to hazards on the job versus lifestyle choices or previous employment exposures. A pro-active effort on the part of the employer can help reduce or eliminate this liability.