What is Respiratory Protective Equipment?

Construction By Matthew Coombes

Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) is a form of personal protective equipment (PPE) used to address risks associated with the respiratory system. In its simplest form, RPE will aim to prevent something from entering your lungs by providing a protective sealed layer between your mouth and nose and the outside environment.

RPE is used to prevent you from inhaling:

  • Bacteria and viruses – COVID, Anthrax, Ebola, SARS
  • Chemicals – Solvents, by-products of chemical mixtures/reactions, harmful vapours
  • Smoke/heat – (Think firefighters!)
  • Particles – such as silica, plastics, wood dust
  • Asbestos fibres

RPE has existed for a very long time

One of the most well recognised early forms of RPE is the mask worn by plague doctors during the 17th century. It was believed at the time that miasma (bad smells) in the air was the cause of illnesses and that wearing a long mask filled with pleasant-smelling spices and plants like lavender would filter out the bad air. The masks had some effectiveness against pneumonic plague (one of the forms of plague commonly known as the Black Death) because they created an extra layer between the wearer and airborne bacteria breathed out by those suffering from the plague.

Jump forward 400 years and a similar and very basic concept was commonly used in the global attempt to reduce spread of COVID-19. By encouraging or mandating all persons to wear masks, the distance which respiratory droplets (which may contain the COVID-19 virus) can travel is reduced. This means that there is less likelihood of either party in a conversation or close proximity inhaling the droplets.

However, this is not effective RPE. The masks provided a minimal layer of protection and unless you were buying medical grade masks, would not provide filtering of any kind. In addition, they became arguably less effective than plague doctor masks when requirements for all parties to wear a face-covering were stopped, and exemptions to wearing face coverings were abused by those to which the exemptions didn’t apply. For example, healthy people not wearing face coverings because they can say that they are exempt without challenge. It quickly became much more effective to stay away from people and work from home.

But that doesn’t mean that proper RPE hasn’t been effectively used during the pandemic. In the early months of the pandemic, as the COVID-19 virus was still emerging and becoming more prevalent, how it spread was not fully understood. Combining RPE with cleaning and decontamination procedures, those with access to proper RPE and PPE were at less risk of becoming infected when compared to those with nothing at all.

Now that we know that COVID-19 is a respiratory virus, RPE can be effectively implemented in circumstances where the risks are harder to fully control, such as in dentistry whereby the dentist will have their face (and therefore respiratory system) in close proximity to the patient’s mouth and exhaled respiratory droplets.
RPE becomes most effective when it’s used properly in addition to other controls.

RPE the bottom of the hierarchy of controls?

PPE/RPE is at the bottom of the well-established concept of the ‘hierarchy of controls’, and it is considered to be one of the last courses of action or one of the final layers of protection between a worker and a hazard. This doesn’t mean that it is ineffective to use RPE – many workers have died after entering a confined space without RPE, and there are substances so harmful and viruses so infectious that RPE is a must in addition to any other controls.

To help you to understand where RPE fits on the hierarchy of controls, I’ve provided some common examples of where RPE isn’t needed, and where it is:

Silica dust – Breathing in silica dust created when carrying out works such as cutting bricks, chasing out internal walls, or carrying out demolition work can cause respiratory problems such as silicosis. This can increase your likelihood of developing certain respiratory cancers, cause damage to your lungs and lung scarring which will make it harder to breathe.

  • No RPE Control: Cutting bricks with a wet saw. This mixes the dust with water so that it cannot become airborne and be breathed in.
  • RPE control: It may not always be possible or desirable to use water to reduce dust, such as when cutting bricks inside a residence, when water is not readily available, or when water could come into contact with electricity.

Asbestos – Breathing in asbestos fibres can lead to developing certain respiratory cancers and mesothelioma. You may breathe in asbestos fibres when undertaking work that involves drilling into walls, doors and ceilings and it is commonly found in many products produced before it was banned in 1999.

  • No RPE Control: The most effective controls against asbestos are leaving it undisturbed if it can be/is in good condition.
  • RPE control: If asbestos needs to be disturbed or removed, a specialist competent contractor will be required to remove it safely. Those carrying out the removal will need to wear full RPE and PPE to do so.

Bacteria and viruses – Many bacterium and viruses are able to enter the human body through the respiratory system and cause ill-health.

  • No RPE control: Airborne viruses can be removed from the air with ventilation and air filtering which removes or reduces the amount or eliminates the presence of the virus in the air.
  • RPE control: Particularly infectious viruses such as Ebola, and bacteria such as Anthrax are so infectious and deadly that RPE would need to be worn in addition to other controls.

RPE certainly has its place in health and safety, and its effectiveness at protecting workers in many situations is undeniable.


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