RPE Selection; back to basics - "Adequate & Suitable".

October 24, 2018

RPE Selection, a basic guide.





Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) selection; getting it wrong can result in life limiting, chronic ill health or worse… as a grim reminder, there are 12,000 annual UK deaths associated with Work Related Respiratory Diseases (WRRD); proof that historically, and more worryingly, currently, employers  and individuals often get it very wrong!


This advice is a sound but basic introduction to RPE Selection, detailed information can be found in HSE Guidance “HSG53” , Consideration should also be given to “COSHH L5” and “EH40”. http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/books/hsg53.htm .


To protect, RPE must be both “Adequate” and “Suitable”…


Adequate” – Is it right for the Hazard, does it have the potential to protect.


Suitable” – Is it right for the wearer, i.e. compatible with the individual, environment & task.


Of course, every effort should first be made to eliminate, reduce or control the hazard (good COSHH procedures!) but if you’re reading this, there is still a reliance on RPE… and as with any PPE, RPE is always the last resort!


Starting with an obvious consideration, and lest be honest, COST!


Initial outlay is often a factor; with “disposable masks” at say £2.50 per unit and reusable respirators at £25 per unit it is all too often a given that disposable RPE is a preferred "quick fix"… But after only 10 days of use the seemingly cheaper disposable unit, a reusable has already paid for itself! If a mask states “NR”, it is Non Reusable i.e. single shift, whereby “R” is reusable. Experience tells me that a moulded silicone respirator will often create a much more effective seal AND often has a better particle retention rate (99% Vs 99.95%)… better for the wearer all round!


Back to “adequate”, considerations for selecting an adequate mask include…·


  • What is the hazard?·

  • What form does the hazardous substance take?

  • Is it a solid, liquid, vapour or gas?·

  • How much is in the atmosphere?·

  • What is the Occupation Exposure Limit (see EH40 for OELs)?·

  • Check the material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS).·

  • Chose the correct filter type and classification (i.e. Particulate class 1, 2, or 3… P1 low protection, P3 higher protection) *.


Namely does it have the potential to offer sufficient protection to the wearer.


On to “suitable”, considerations include…· 


  • Is it comfortable?·

  • Work rate & expected continued wear time?·

  • Communications?·

  • Physical fitness and health of the wearer.·

  • Compatibility with other PPE?·

  • Facial hair status (we’ll save that discussion for another time but close fitting RPE simply doesn’t function or protect when worn with facial hair!).·

  • Does it create an effective seal to the wearers face (this is where face fit testing comes into play!)


Speak to the workforce and suppliers;  observe, trial a few types, involve the individual; is it right for the wearer?


Is eye Protection required? If so you need to ascertain that both devices are compatible or consider the use of full face RPE.


Does a dust mask stop all dust? Simply put, NO*! A particulate filter class one (P1) mask reduces the inhaled quantity by a factor of 4, P2 a factor of 10, P3 a factor of 20. Therefore, even when wearing a P3 mask, the wearer is potentially inhaling one twentieth of airborne particulate. Lots of dust in the atmosphere equals lots of dust in the lungs even when wearing a mask; there simply cannot be a reliance on respiratory protection alone, it is always a last resort!


If I was selecting RPE, I would go for reusable mask over a disposable but nevertheless features on either would include.·


  • A large surface area of the face seal. ·

  • Adjustable straps.·

  • Cup shaped over fold flat.·

  • A filter marked “D” to indicate an increased clogging resistance.·

  • A crown grip or harness over just straps.·

  • A valved mask (disposable) – Easier to wear for long periods of time.·

  • Highest protection factor possible·

  • Robust & easily maintained.·

  • CE marked & conforming to the relevant European standard, a reputable brand that is easily obtainable (not what’s just on special offer!).·

  • A nasal “clip”, to be formed to the shape of the wearers nose.


Once the mask of choice has been selected, a face fit test should be utilised to demonstrate if the mask doe or does not create a seal to the wearers face (all masks simply don’t fit all faces!).


After that, the battle may be ensuring that the device is worn correctly, consistently and as and when required!


By getting these basics correct, we can go someway to eliminate long term ill health and have a healthier and possibly happier workforce!

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