Business shows commitment to respiratory protection and Australian innovation
Of all the occupational exposures, respiratory inhalation poses one of the most dangerous and insidious threats to workers and their employers. The nature of some dusts (with a very small particle size) or fumes (that are non-visible and odourless) means these hazardous substances and toxins can remain undetected and can have disastrous acute or long-term consequences to workers’ respiratory health.
Thorough assessment of the level of exposure to contaminants in the workplace and the type of working environment (heat, confined, mobility, existing PPE) is a critical part of any respiratory protection program. This work requires willingness in the business to invest in accessing a deep body of expertise and knowledge to implement the right respiratory protection program.
Furthermore, many employees in heavy industry are working over long periods of time where they are required to carry a range of equipment and PPE during high-exertion activity in hot conditions. In these circumstances, even knowing the risks, there is a natural desire for workers to avoid cumbersome or uncomfortable face masks and seek relief by removing or constantly adjusting their masks. Where respiratory protection is concerned, a business’s commitment to workplace safety can be tested in these circumstances.
One of Australia’s largest building and construction materials suppliers recently explored alternative respirators that would be able to maintain a high level of protection and be comfortable for its employees to wear. The company’s hard rock quarries have some workers who confront dust hazards daily during working shifts.
Negative pressure masks were being worn by their staff to protect them during the production and maintenance phases; however, the site HSE advisor was looking for a respirator that eliminated the concerns associated with the use of available disposable respirators. These concerns included the potential that staff may not replace the disposables as often as they should when the filters became dirty and, in other cases, the disposable respirators may be thrown away before they needed to be. This could significantly add to the cost of the site’s PPE. The disposable respirators also relied heavily on the wearer correctly fitting the mask, with subsequent reports from quarry staff that the mask could be tight and uncomfortable, which often contributed to safety glasses fogging up.
The company conducted an extensive search and review of available respiratory protection products on the market with the assistance of its national safety supplier, Protector Alsafe. Protector Alsafe’s experienced account managers presented a range of respiratory solutions to their client and the company’s NSW HSE advisor. The HSE team noted the traditional full-face powered air purifying respirators (PAPR) provided high levels of protection; however, they looked like space suits and were bulky and could make the workers feel claustrophobic.
Instead, the company decided on the Australian-designed and -engineered half-mask PAPR CleanSpace2 by PAFtec, which is claimed to be Australia’s smallest powered respirator (less than 700 g).
Recipient of a prestigious Commercialisation Australia grant and International Design Award, the respirator has an intelligent software system that delivers clean fresh air and is breath-responsive. “The system adjusts the mask pressure and airflow to match that needed by the wearer regardless of how hard they are working. It’s a remarkably comfortable mask,” explains Dr Alex Birrell, PAFtec’s CEO.
After extensive trials of the CleanSpace2 positive air (PAPR) respirators, the company’s hard rock quarries discovered that the staff preferred to wear CleanSpace2 over the traditional disposable dust masks that had been in use on-site for many years.
The staff said that the unit felt more comfortable and was easy to use and simple to maintain, which meant that for the management team, it was easier to implement and support the use of respirators in line with the site’s mandatory PPE requirements. The trial also highlighted additional benefits from using CleanSpace2, including eliminating the issue of the safety glasses fogging up. Staff reported that they were able to perform their daily tasks with greater ease as a result of the fresh airflow across their mouth, nose and face.
From a safety perspective, with a positive air pressure respirator, the facepiece seal (on the powered respirator) is less critical to protection than a negative pressure mask, such as a disposable respirator. Firstly, if the seal is broken, the system compensates by increasing airflow and pushing air out of the mask (preventing risk of contaminants leaking into the wearer’s breathing zone). This ensures that if the facepiece seal is broken by bumping or accidental contact with the wearer’s arm or hand, then the wearer has less potential exposure to airborne contaminants.
With a positive pressure respirator, there is significantly less risk of airborne contaminants breaching the mask and the wearer inhaling contaminants even during inadvertent mask movement, such as when the wearer adjusts the mask or speaks.
An additional safety benefit of the CleanSpace2 system is the filter blockage detection system that alerts the wearer to replace the filter when the system detects a heavy particulate load. This assists the staff to ensure they have adequate filtering and it also saves on the costs associated with unnecessary filter changes.
From an environmental perspective, the company says it feels proud that it is reducing its waste generation with the re-usable units. “We were surprised and pleased that when we projected out the cost of CleanSpace2 compared to use of our disposable respirators there was a significant reduction in our long-term costs on respirators when we switched to CleanSpace2. Every employee at our trial site now has their own battery charger, filter pack and mask,” said the company’s OHS site manager.
To save costs even further, the company found that the CleanSpace2 respirator unit with its removable silicone masks can be shared between staff members. By issuing each person with their own correctly sized facepieces, the powered unit being a closed circuit design means that the exhaled air will not travel into the powered section of the respirator unit. The air is exhaled out through the exhalation valve, thus preventing the potential for the transfer of communicable pathogens between staff.
“Similarly, the masks, being soft silicone, are modelled on the medical industry and have been designed to be hygienic and easily cleaned (even in the dishwasher, if necessary) between shifts, maintaining a clean and fresh space for staff to breath,” says PAFtec Global Head of Sales Jon Imms.
Since the initial trial, the company’s other Australian sites have witnessed the benefits and have sought to introduce, with the support of Protector Alsafe training and safety personnel, the CleanSpace2 half-mask powered respirator to their respiratory protection programs.
The company is now looking into implementing the widespread use of the CleanSpace2 powered respirator at many of its quarry sites as a replacement for disposable respirators across the region.
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