Advances in Respiratory Protection Program Management & Fit-Testing Systems

Photo courtesy Accutec

By: Rob Brauch, Contributor

When practicing industrial hygiene, many forms of instrumentation are used. Most measure some physical or chemical agent in real-time, for exposure assessment and adherence to regulated action levels, permissible exposure limits, STELs and ceiling levels. Some warn workers of an IDLH hazard, such as dangerous concentrations of toxic or explosive materials.

Instruments for EH&S measure to performance standards approved by ANSI, IEC or ISO to prove they meet accuracy, repeatability and precision expectations. For nearly 50 years, they have electronically stored data and provide detailed “time-history” records of the exposure. Imagine the time before that, when IH instruments only gave readings that had to be written down on paper—using archaic utensils like pens!

Over time, most IH instruments evolved into systems, including software to capture and graph the exposure profiles; document regulatory compliance metrics; and analyze how engineering and/or administrative controls could be implemented in place of PPE for high-exposure operations.

Early fit-testing programs only documented exposure and compliance, but they’re capable of performing deeper analysis today. © littlewolf1989 – stock.adobe.com

Yet not all measurement instruments used by industrial hygienists exist for personal exposure assessments or area measurement of toxic or explosive gases and dusts. A good example is found in the management of a respiratory protection program (RPP) and the instruments that perform fit testing for OSHA compliance to ensure the respirator issued to your employee is the correct size and model—and is proven to be effective and protective.

OSHA still allows the manual labor-intensive, subjective qualitative method to be used. Qualitative fit-testing relies on the person administering the test to observe subjects’ response, as well as write down that the test was performed at a certain date, time and place. The result is only “pass or fail” with no data to support the result. Sounds an awful lot like the early days of industrial hygiene, right?

When performing quantitative fit testing of tight-fitting respirators, whether SCBA, full- or half-facepiece elastomeric, or an N95 or similar single-use filtering facepiece, fit test instruments make the determination of pass/fail status of the worker and their assigned respirator, based on the “fit factor.”

This is why many EH&S professionals came to rely on quantitative fit test devices for an objective pass/fail assessment—automatically recorded on the machine. But the machine is in fact an instrument—performing real-time measurements using sound, scientific measurement principles.

Factoring in Fit Factor

The fit factor is a direct measurement of seal leakage (when using the constant negative pressure [CNP] or method), or it’s a ratio of the actual number of respirable particles in the ambient environment compared to the number of particles that are sampled inside the respirator while being worn (called the condensation particle counting method).

Both methods are approved by OSHA and utilize physical exercise protocols compliant with CFR 1910.134, although it should be noted that only the CPC method is able to test N95 and other types of filtering facepiece respirators in use around the world (e.g., FFP series respirators).

Use of advanced software programs for respiratory protection program management adds value for program improvement initiatives. (photo courtesy Accutec)

Program Management Evolution

We know software is playing a far greater role today in IH program management. A good example is in hearing conservation—where exposure assessment data and medical surveillance data (i.e., audiograms) are being integrated more than ever.

Early programs only documented exposure and compliance, but they’re more capable of performing deeper analysis today. Many provide management-level data aggregation for identification of at-risk cohort groups and allow comparison of effectiveness of controls and proper use of different types of PPE at sites performing similar operations.

Some go so far as to interface directly with master EH&S database systems that are either proprietary to the employer’s IT infrastructure or get stored on one of the many available vendor-hosted EH&S Enterprise platforms. As a result, HCPs are becoming much more effective.

Advanced Software Advantages

RPPs and HCPs are quite similar at the program level, both with medical screening info, known exposure to hazards and PPE effectiveness being interdependent elements that should be monitored and documented. Thus, it seems logical that using advanced software programs for RPP management is desirable and adds value for program improvement initiatives.

Yet, in this writer’s opinion, this aspect of respiratory program management has been overlooked and is ready for some real advances. It could be that, since fit testing often is only performed once a year, less thought is given to how the records are kept and how they are utilized. But, if we dig a little deeper into how software could be the cornerstone of an effective RPP, it uncovers many areas for improvement.

© phuangphech – stock.adobe.com

It’s safe to say that no major advances have been made in software as an effective recordkeeping and management tool since quantitative fit test instruments came into being. Cosmetic improvements were made over the years but without real gains in utility and functionality—especially where better maintenance and continuity of records is concerned.

All too often, fit test records are kept compartmentalized—stored away on individual PCs or USB sticks that get lost or fail—or get printed and kept in a file cabinet…somewhere. Often, employees leave, and “things happen.”

A well-architected approach to the software environment could be taken that will propel best practice in respiratory protection into the modern era. New developments just over the horizon will pull fit test recordkeeping and individual data together in much the same way as has been done in other areas of industrial hygiene—and innovative suppliers will lead the way. Advances could include how fit test operators obtain better guidance on how to administer the test and obtain faster access to the tools they need to do their job quickly, while still doing it properly.

With support integration at the enterprise level and flexible hosting options, respiratory program managers and EH&S directors will get much better control over how, when and why tests are performed and gain deeper insight into which models of RPE fit best. Getting actionable data for continuous program improvement will save time, as well as the health and lives of at-risk workers. The current state of RPP software options will fade in the rearview, as the coming future state truly drives best practice into realm of possibility.

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