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Selecting the right RPE for your workplace

RPEInsulate Magazine columnist George Elliott, a technical specialist at science-based technology company 3M, provides a simple guide for RPE selection

Each year, around 12,000 people die from respiratory diseases caused by past working conditions, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)[1].

In addition, the HSE estimates that annually there are 14,000 new cases of breathing or lung problems caused or made worse by work1.

Those working in the insulation industry, whether in the factory or at the installation site, can face a range of respiratory hazards, from glass fibres and dust to chemicals.

The first step towards protecting workers against respiratory conditions should be to carry out a risk assessment to identify airborne hazards.

Next, employers should act to limit these hazards by either eliminating them completely, or substituting them for something less harmful, or introducing engineering controls to reduce their presence. Additionally, administration controls should be considered.

However, sometimes a respiratory hazard will remain even after taking these measures. In these cases, provision of respiratory protective equipment (RPE) may be necessary as part of an employer’s control regime.

When selecting RPE from the numerous options available, purchasers should ensure the equipment is both adequate and suitable.



Ensuring RPE is adequate

In this context, adequate equipment is that which is right for the hazard and reduces exposure to the level required to protect the wearer’s health.

Employers’ first step should be to pick RPE options that can protect against the particular hazard, or hazards, identified in their risk assessment. These could be particulates, gases, vapours, or some combination of these.

Next, employers should narrow down their selection to only those RPE options that also provide enough protection for the quantity of the hazard present in their workplace.

The HSE gives each RPE type an ‘assigned protection factor’ (APF), denoting the level of protection it offers. This can be cross-referenced with both the employer’s risk assessment, if it includes the concentration levels of contaminants found in the workplace, and Workplace Exposure Limits published in the HSE’s EH40 document, which can be downloaded free from the organisation’s website. Minimum APFs required for certain tasks are often found in HSE guidance sheets.

3M’s free Select and Service Life Software – available at – can also help to simplify this process. By entering details of contaminants and their concentrations, companies can receive tailored product suggestions. The software covers more than 700 chemicals, and also offers a method for estimating the service life of certain 3M filters.

Ensuring RPE is suitable

To be suitable, RPE must be right for the wearer, task and environment, such that the wearer can work freely and without additional risks caused by the equipment.

To find suitable RPE, employers should consider offering workers a range of options and involving them in the selection process. 3M is happy to provide free samples for workplace trials.

To assess which options workers find suitable, health and safety managers may use methods such as staff surveys, focus groups and roundtable discussions. 3M can provide questionnaires to help health and safety managers get the most valuable feedback.

Another point to note is that, under COSHH regulations, to ensure RPE is suitable, employers are required to face fit test wearers of tight-fitting RPE. This is to ensure the respirator adequately seals to their face, as the equipment’s performance hinges on this. Additionally, wearers of tight-fitting RPE must be clean shaven under the area of the face seal.

Alternatively, those with facial hair may wear loose-fitting powered and supplied air respirators. Employers can also consider these options if they wish to avoid face fit testing.

When RPE is suitable, this can help to improve worker compliance, resulting in improved protection.



Another important stage of the RPE selection process is training. Without the correct knowledge, workers may be at risk of unnecessary exposure.

Training should begin with outlining the need for protection in the first place. Workers must understand why and when RPE is required.

Next, the respirator’s limitations should be explained so that users know what they can and cannot rely on their RPE to protect them against.

Putting on and removing the equipment should also be covered. This is important as it will affect user acceptance of the RPE, as well as compliance rates. 3M has produced instructional videos demonstrating the fitting of their RPE, which can be found on the 3M UK & Ireland YouTube channel.

Where required, maintenance is also a key topic. Reusable respirators must be properly cleaned and stored between shifts to prevent damage and contamination.

More information about selecting RPE can be found in the HSE guide ‘Respiratory Protective Equipment at Work (HSG53)’, available free at

Alternatively, call the 3M helpline on 0870 60 800 60 to discuss specific requirements with a technical expert.

For more information about 3M, visit

Read more from 3M on the Insulate Network 

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