If you work in any field that requires Respiratory Protection Equipment (RPE), you will need your equipment to undergo fit testing. This is especially important in industries such as construction, mining or agriculture, as they can have a high exposure to airborne contaminants, potentially leading to lung disease.
What is Fit Testing?
A “fit test” tests the seal between the respirator's facepiece and your face. It takes about fifteen to thirty minutes to complete and is performed at least annually. After passing a fit test with a respirator, you must use the exact same make, model, style, and size respirator on the job. It is critical to ensure a tight seal is made around the face and the respirator is able to prevent exposure to contaminants.
Tight-fitting respirators must seal to the wearer’s face in order to provide the expected protection. If there is a leak in the face seal, they may be exposed to harmful airborne contaminants.
Why Fit Testing?
A good fit means the tight-fitting respiratory protective device (RPD) will seal to your skin. A respirator can only provide adequate respiratory protection to the wearer when air passes through the filter and does not enter the wearer’s breathing zone via any other route. Air will take the path of least resistance, so if there isn’t a good face seal, some of the contaminated air will go through this path rather than through the respirator filter, and therefore reduce the protection.
Every wearer’s face is different in shape, size and features. Tight-fitting respirators are also available in a wide range of shapes, styles, materials and sizes. Unfortunately, there is no single tight-fitting respirator that can be expected to fit every possible wearer. Therefore, the fit of a respirator is personal, individual and unique to each wearer. The only way to know if a respirator can provide an adequate seal to a wearer is to fit test each respirator-wearer combination.
Fit Testing as part of your Respiratory Protection Program
Implementing an effective respiratory protection program should be a methodical and documented process. All programs should start with an exposure and risk assessment per AS/NZS 1715(17) to determine the level of adequate respiratory protection required. After this, the focus is the selection and fit testing of an RPD that is suitable for the workplace, the task and the wearer. A suitable tight-fitting RPD also needs to be compatible with other items of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such that the protection provided by the PPE is not compromised, be comfortable to wear and importantly fit the wearer.
A medical evaluation is required to assess psychological and physical suitability prior to fit testing and wearing on the job. Finally, the entire program should be documented, particularly wearer training in the limitations, fitting, use and maintenance of the respirator.
Fit testing is a key part of a workplace respiratory protection program. A fit test gives an assessment of how well the respirator fits the wearer. A fit test also helps with the assessment of the respirator’s comfort, compatibility with other PPE and overall suitability for the wearer, along with being an ideal training opportunity for the wearer on the correct fitting and use of the product.
What type of RPD should be fit tested?
Any tight-fitting facepiece should be fit tested. These include disposable facepiece respirators (disposable respirators, commonly referred to as ‘dust masks’), half-masks with filters and full-face masks with filters. Any tight-fitting facepiece that is connected to a powered or supplied air system should also be fit tested; this includes tight-fitting face masks used with PAPR, powered masks, breathable compressed air or self contained breathing apparatus.
Types of Fit Testing:
There are two types of fit tests:
- Qualitative — a pass/fail test that relies on the wearer’s ability to taste or smell a test agent. This type of test can be used on half-face respirators.
- Quantitative — uses specialised equipment to measure how much air leaks into the respirator. This type of test can be used on half-face and full-face respirators, and produces a numerical result called a "Fit Factor".
Respirator stability and fit test exercises
A key part of a fit test is to determine the respirator’s ability to retain its seal when the wearer is in motion. That’s why wearers are instructed to perform several standardised exercises that are meant to put the seal of the tight-fitting respirator under stress, as part of testing. The most common exercises used in protocols are as follows:
- Normal breathing
- Deep breathing
- Turning head from side to side (inhaling at the extremes)
- Moving head up and down (inhaling when looking up)
- Reading/talking aloud
- Bending over at the waist
- Normal breathing
Importance of fit
Incorrectly fitted respirators may not achieve a reliable seal to the wearer’s face and may be uncomfortable, possibly leading to wearers not wearing the respirator during all periods of exposure. There are many factors that affect the fit of tight-fitting respirators:
- Donning procedure - everything from putting the respirator on the right way up through to the correct position and tension adjustment of the headbands or proper formation of the noseclip, if applicable.
- Facial hair: look out for hair under the faceseal, beard growth/stubble, forward hairlines (full face masks) and big sideburns. Beards, moustaches, or even stubble interfere with the seal of a tight-fitting respirator. Wearers must be clean-shaven in any area of the face and neck where the respirator comes into contact with the face. This rule applies not only for the day of fit testing, but for any day when a tight-fitting respirator is worn in the workplace.
- Other contaminants: anything that can interfere with the seal to the face, includes hair, cosmetics, sweat, etc
- Face shape and size: extremes of face size (length and width of face) and well as very angular or very round faces can cause issue with fit.
- Facial features: prominent facial features can also cause some issues such as cleft chins, scars on the facesealing area, depressions around the temple/ cheekbones, unusual chin profiles (chiselled features), or unusual nose shapes (very large or very flat).
User seal check: An essential everyday test
Workers wearing tight-fitting respiratory protection should perform a wearer seal check each time they put on their respirator. A fit test ensures that the respirator is able to fit and provide a secure seal, but a wearer seal check ensures that it’s being worn right each time – a quick way of identifying errors in fitting and certain faults with the respirator. Wearers can either perform a positive-pressure or negative-pressure seal check, as detailed in the manufacturer’s user instructions:
- A positive-pressure check means blocking the exhalation valve on a half or full facepiece respirator or covering the respirator surface on a disposable facepiece, usually by using your hands, and trying to breathe out. If slight pressure builds up, that means the seal is adequate, while a poor seal is indicated by the feel of an airstream channelling through the leak. Note that exhalation valves on disposable facepieces are not designed to be blocked, so this method is not viable for valved disposable facepieces.
- A negative-pressure check involves blocking the intake valves or filters on a half or full facepiece respirator or covering the respirator surface on a disposable facepiece, typically using your hands and trying to breathe in. An adequate seal is indicated by the facepiece sinking onto the face while a poor seal is indicated by the feel of an airstream channelling through the leak. See the product user instructions for more details.
Compatibility with other PPE
Prescription and safety spectacles, goggles, face shields, hearing protection, hard hats and coveralls can all compete with a respirator for space upon a wearer’s face, head or body. For instance, if a half mask respirator doesn’t fit well (especially if it’s too large), it can overlap with spectacles. The more that happens, the more fogging can potentially occur on the spectacles.
Adjusting the position of a respirator upon the face to better accommodate spectacles and goggles, or a hard hat or coverall hood affecting the correct positioning of respirator headbands can all interfere with the respirator’s seal. To catch these problems before they happen on the job, any item of PPE that could potentially interfere with the respirator’s seal should also be worn during the fit test.
Interpreting Fit Test Passes
A respirator fit test pass means that on that day, in those circumstances, the respirator was shown to be able to provide an adequate seal to the wearer’s face. A fit test pass is not a guarantee of adequate respirator fit when the next respirator is worn. Therefore, a tight fitting respirator should be fitted correctly and in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions, and the wearer must always perform a wearer seal check (fit check) each time the respirator is fitted.
According to ISO 16975-3(17), a fit test record should contain the following:
- date of the test;
- identification of the fit-test operator and fit-test operator’s employer/company name;
- name of the person fit tested;
- details which will uniquely identify the respirator tested such as make, model, size and material;
- details which will uniquely identify all other potentially interfering PPE worn during the fit test such as spectacles, jewellery, make, model and size;
- fit-test method used;
- pass/fail criteria;
- results: pass/fail, fit factors or other information generated may be documented;
- corrective actions in case of a failed fit test;
- overall fit factor achieved;
- pass level used in the test;
- serial number or other means of identifying test equipment used in the test;
- any additional information the RPD program administrator deems relevant.
Facial Hair and Clean-Shaven Policies
Wearer facial hair is perhaps the most commonly cited issue regarding both respirator selection, use and fit testing. It can be a highly contentious issue, touching on wearer’s rights, employment law, religious beliefs and employer/PCBU responsibilities. The rights of the wearer need to be balanced against the needs to protect the health and safety of the wearer – a balance that can be tricky to achieve in many circumstances.
Ultimately though, tight-fitting respirators rely upon a good seal to the face to protect the wearer. Anything that can interfere with this seal and create gaps, including the full range of facial hair from stubble to beards, can and will compromise protection.
Numerous studies have evaluated the effects of facial hair upon the performance of tight-fitting respirators. These indicated that in the presence of facial hair, face seal leakage increases from 20 to 1000 times. Another study showed a three hundred and thirty (330) fold drop in protection was experienced by bearded employees. None of the studies showed that facial hair improves the seal of the respirator to the face, with the conclusion being that the effects of facial hair are variable by length and person but generally facial hair reduces the protection to the wearer. The ProChoice Safety visual guide is advised for determining whether your facial hair is appropriate.
Whenever you conduct fit testing, there must be prior agreement between the employer and the fit tester on what the first-choice respirator is and a range of alternatives. These respirators must be available for fit testing and for use in the workplace. This may mean that more products will need to be purchased and managed as a result of fit testing.
For example, if a failure is experienced on the first-choice disposable respirator, then the next choice might be a different shape of disposable respirator. If failures occur on this respirator, then it might be appropriate to use a half-mask and filters – particularly as these are typically available in range of sizes.
It is important to note that a fit test is respirator-wearer specific. A change in the respirator, e.g. from one model of disposable to another model of disposable, even though they may be of the same class, e.g. P2, does require another fit test.
How to get fit tested?
Here at Taylor Safety Equipment, you can contact us and we will be happy to schedule you in for a fit test when possible. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, qualitative fit tests (ordinarily offered by our staff) are unavailable, with the only avenue for fit testing being a quantitative fit test through SureFit Services. All you need to do is contact us and we'll talk you through all the information we need.