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RPE – What is it and when do you need it?

Respiratory Protective Equipment, or RPE for short, is a type of personal protective equipment (PPE) which is used to protect the wearer either from breathing in harmful substances or from oxygen-deficient atmospheres when other controls are not possible or insufficient on their own.

Hazardous substances are emitted into the air from certain processes, for example welding metals or cutting stone and wood. Oxygen-deficient atmosphere occur typically in confined spaces such as silos and tanks.

To protect against these various situations, there are different types of RPE. The two main types are:

  • Respirators – these use filters to remove the hazardous substances from the air before being breathed in. They come as both powered and non-powered. The former uses a motor to move air through the filter to supply the wearer with clean air. The latter relies on the wearer’s breathing to pull air through the filter. Having a suitable filter is essential with this type and due to the plethora of hazardous substances, there are many types of filter to choose from! See the table below for more details.

  • Breathing Apparatus (BA) – this requires a supply of breathing-quality air from an independent source, typically an air compressor or cylinder.

Source: HSG53 – Respiratory protective equipment at work

These two main types can also then each be subdivided into two more groups:

  • Tight-fitting facepieces (masks) – This group of RPE relies on a tight fit between the mask’s seal and wearer’s face. To confirm the effectiveness of the mask’s seal, a face fit test should be carried out.

  • Loose-fitting facepieces – This group of RPE relies on sufficient clean air being supplied to prevent contaminated air from entering the hood, helmet, or visor etc. Due to the volume of air requirements to achieve this, it is only feasible with powered respirators or BA.

When should RPE be used?

RPE should only be used after taking all other reasonably practicable measures to prevent or control exposure. You will be required to justify your use of RPE through the risk assessment of the process.

You should only use RPE:

  • Where an inhalation exposure risk remains following the implementation of other control measures.

  • While you are implementing other control measures.

  • For emergency work.

  • For temporary failure of controls where other means are not reasonably practicable.

  • For short-term or infrequent exposure, such as during maintenance, where other control measures are not reasonably practicable.

The RPE should be able to adequately control the wearer’s inhalation exposure and be suitable for the wearer, task and environment without additional risk from the RPE. The RPE should be CE marked, used by properly trained people who are supervised. The RPE should be stored, cleaned and checked regularly to ensure it remains effective.

If the RPE is reusable, it must undergo thorough examination and testing (where needed) at suitable intervals. This should typically be monthly, but quarterly is acceptable where used less frequently. A record of this should be made and retained for at least five years, including any repair work carried out. The quality of air supplied to BA should be tested at least every three months.

RPE – Don’t Forget

RPE is the last line of protection and last resort under law! Remember, RPE only protects the wearer and only works if it is used correctly and is well maintained. RPE is also uncomfortable to wear and may interfere with work, which can lead to incorrect use. Due to this, tight-fitting RPE is not suitable for >1-hour continuous use or >4 hours in a shift.

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