What Is Respirator Fit Testing (and Why It’s Important for Your Workers)

By: Jason Rutz, Contributor

With the increased awareness and importance of respiratory protection, elevated with the seriousness of health risks like COVID-19, choosing the right respirator is more top-of-mind than ever.

A respiratory protective device (RPD) is an essential piece of PPE to protect workers from harmful particulates, vapors, gases and other hazards that OSHA says can lead to pulmonary injuries and illnesses, such as lung diseases and even death. But a respirator, no matter how well-made, is only as good as how it fits. Gaps or leaks between the face and the sealing surface of the respirator allow harmful particles to be inhaled by the worker; this can negate the important role of even the most highly engineered respirator.

Respiratory protection is No. 3 on OSHA’s recent list of most frequently cited workplace violations, reinforcing the priority of helping to keep your workers safe, healthy and compliant by choosing the best testing method to ensure a proper respirator fit.

The PortaCount is controlled by FitPro™ Ultra Fit Test Software, which guides the fit test process, while automatically recording results to a database to document your program’s compliance. The intuitive software works on touchscreen tablets and PC laptops. (photo courtesy TSI)

What Is Fit Testing

The amount of protection a respirator will provide is heavily dependent on how well it fits. Every person’s face is different and, therefore, every wearer needs to undergo an individual fit test for the specific respirator they use on the job. Fit testing acts like the final exam in a respiratory protection program, which also includes a comprehensive respirator training program; medical evaluation; and selection, use and limitations of selected RPDs.

A fit test verifies the seal between the respirator and the wearer’s face, identifying gaps or leaks that put workers at risk. In the end, fit testing ensures that workers can achieve the required fit and level of protection for the respirator type they are issued for the job they are performing.

OSHA requires respirator fit testing, but the process is about more than compliance or “checking the box” as quickly as possible. It’s about safety. Staff working in dangerous environments deserve the very best protection possible from their respirator. Just as important is the training element: Fit testing ensures the wearer knows how to properly don and doff the respirator and how to adjust it to achieve a proper fit, as well as ensuring the respirator is comfortable to wear.

New employees should be fit tested, as part of their onboarding process, before they begin working in hazardous conditions requiring the use of respiratory protection. After that, OSHA requires that a fit test be completed annually for anyone required to continue to wear a tight-fitting respirator for their job, per their company’s written respiratory protection program. In addition, workers should re-test if there is a change in the type of respirator used—or if the wearer experiences substantial changes to their facial features, such as weight loss/gain or cosmetic surgery.

How Is Fit Testing Conducted?

The PortaCount® Respirator Fit Tester measures the concentration of ambient particles outside the respirator and the concentration of ambient particles inside of the respirator. (photo courtesy TSI)

There are two primary ways to conduct fit testing: qualitative (QLFT) and quantitative (QNFT).

Qualitative fit testing uses a challenge agent, such as Saccharin Solution Aerosol (sweet tasting); Bitrex® Solution Aerosol (bitter tasting); and the wearer’s sense of taste to achieve a subjective pass or fail assessment of whether the respirator fits or not.

Quantitative fit testing directly measures respirator leakage by counting ambient particles both outside and inside of the respirator to get an objective measurement of the respirator’s fit. Quantitative testing provides a numerical/objective measurement of respirator fit and does not rely on a subjective response, making it the most accurate method of respirator fit testing.

There are several available methods for quantitative measurements. One innovative instrument measures the concentration of ambient particles outside the respirator and the concentration of ambient particles inside of the respirator. Those two measurements result in a ratio called a “fit factor.”

The test takes measurements while the person being fit tested performs a range of movements outlined by OSHA to reflect real-world use (including bending over; moving the head from side to side; moving the head up and down; talking and jogging) and confirms that the respirator can still provide the appropriate level of protection.

Software is also available that can guide the fit test process, while automatically recording results to a database to document your program’s compliance. The intuitive software works on touchscreen tablets and PC laptops.

Along with ensuring a proper fit using objective numbers rather than subjective senses, a quantitative testing tool increases the efficiency of the testing process—allowing for more tests to be completed in less time. This has the added benefit of freeing test administrators to multi-task, because the instrument is doing the work. And it can help increase the percentage of passed fit tests, due to better staff training and the early identification of respirators that fit poorly.

What’s more, real-time measurements not only allow you to quickly find the correct size of mask, but also provide staff with a greater understanding of how and when their respirator best protects them to achieve the best respirator fit possible. Ultimately, these efficiencies help increase the volume of fit testing and the ability of companies to manage the data and their respirator programs efficiently.

Wider adoption and acceptance of fit testing, particularly the ambient aerosol quantitative method, is one more crucial step in helping companies achieve compliance and—most importantly—keeping employees safe and healthy while on the job.

About the Author

Jason Rutz is a Global Product Manager at TSI, a leading global supplier of measurement instrumentation and software services designed to assist safety professionals with a range of solutions for evaluating exposure and safety. For more details, visit TSI.com.

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