Voluntary Use of Respirators: Making Sense of OSHA Regulations

Respirators Stock PhotoBy Travis Rhoden, Contributor

It is not uncommon for employees to approach their supervisor or safety manager and ask about wearing a respirator, just because they will “feel more comfortable” doing the work. It is also not uncommon for the supervisor or safety manager to be unclear on whether to allow this type of voluntary use and, if so, what OSHA requires of the employer. Some questions employers might ask themselves include: “Is a fit test required?” “Do we have to train them?” “What about medical evaluations?” “Is a dust mask even considered to be a respirator?”

“Voluntary Use” Defined

The first thing the employer must do is make sure the respirator use is actually “voluntary,” as defined in the OSHA Respiratory Protection Standard, 29 CFR 1910.134. In order for the use to be voluntary (and, thus exempt from many of OSHA’s respiratory protection requirements), two factors have to be considered:

  • Is there an atmospheric hazard that necessitates the use of respiratory protection?
  • Does the employer require the respirator use?

If either of the above questions can be answered with a “yes,” the usage is not considered voluntary. Obviously, if there is an atmospheric hazard that can’t be controlled by other means, respirator use would be mandatory. But, for non-hazardous atmospheres, if the employer requires workers to wear respirators, then the use must be considered mandatory. All of the applicable Respiratory Protection Standard requirements (e.g., fit test, medical evaluation and cleaning) thus apply—even for a dust masks, which OSHA refers to as “filtering facepiece respirators.”

Why Want to Voluntarily Wear a Respirator?

There are many reasons workers might want to wear a respirator, even though it may not be required.

One example, perhaps the most common, is illustrated in OSHA’s Preamble to the Respiratory Protection Final Rule:

“…some employees who have seasonal allergies may request a mask for comfort when working outdoors, or an employee may request a dust mask for use while sweeping a dusty floor…”

But, there are other reasons. For example, an employee who works with a smelly solvent to clean parts may find comfort in a respirator, even though the employer has evaluated the exposure and determined it is within acceptable limits. In these situations, the employer may know there isn’t a health risk but still wants employees to be comfortable when doing the job;  this might be a case where voluntary respirator use is appropriate. Note: The employer would still want to keep track of the hazards, especially if any changes in the process would increase exposure.

Voluntary Use Requirements

When deciding whether or not to allow the voluntary use of a respirator, there are two sets of OSHA requirements with which employers must be familiar. One set is for dust masks. The other set is for all other types of respirators.

Dust Mask

If an employee wants to use a dust mask on a voluntary basis, then the employer has minimal responsibility.

OSHA places two requirements on employers when it comes to allowing employees to wear dust masks voluntarily:

  1. Employers must determine that the masks themselves do not pose a hazard to workers (typically, this could be accomplished by ensuring NIOSH-approved masks are used and kept clean); and
  2. Employers must provide the information found in Appendix D to 1910.134 of OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Standard to workers on a one-time basis. This Appendix provides important information the employee needs to know about wearing dust masks.

Employers are not required to provide any medical evaluation or fit test for voluntary use of a dust mask.

Respirators Other than Dust Masks

For voluntary use of respirators other than dust masks, the OSHA requirements are more involved. They still don’t rise to the level of that required under the full Respiratory Protection Program, but they do require employers to take quite a few protective measures.

The employer:

  • Must determine that the respirator use will not in itself create a hazard;
  • Provide respirator users with the information contained in the standard’s Appendix D;
  • Ensure the respirator users are medically qualified to wear respirators; and
  • Ensure the respirators are properly cleaned, stored and maintained.

These types of respirators, such as tight-fitting, negative-pressure respirators, place a much greater physiological burden on employees, so OSHA requires more of employers when allowing their use—even on a voluntary basis. OSHA believes that by requiring employers to implement these aspects of the Respiratory Protection Program for voluntary use, it will ensure that the respirator is used properly and does not create a hazard to the user. For example, certain respirators could harm the wearer’s health if that worker had an undetected asthma or a heart condition.

Who Must/Can Provide Voluntary-use Respirators?

Either the employer or the employee can provide the respirator for voluntary use. The employer doesn’t have to pay for the voluntary-use respirators, but the employer does have to pay for any expenses related to providing the Appendix D information, as well as any necessary medical evaluations and respirator cleaning equipment.

What about Facial Hair?

Unlike for required respirator use, OSHA does not prohibit employees from having facial hair when they use a tight-fitting respirator voluntarily—because the air is safe to breathe. But, OSHA does discourage this and recommends following sound industrial hygiene practices, as well as the manufacturer’s instructions, even for voluntary use.

Making Your Decision

There are many reasons employees may want to wear respirators voluntarily. In the majority of cases, this will involve dust mask use, where the OSHA requirements for employers are minimal. But, for other types of respirators, voluntary use carries with it more involved requirements for the employer. The employer’s Respiratory Protection Program Administrator must ultimately make the call as to whether the voluntary use is permissible—to do that requires a sound knowledge of the work practices, but also an understanding of what OSHA requires. IHW

About the Author:

Travis Rhoden, MS, SMS is an EHS Senior Editor with J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc., a leading source for OSHA-compliance products and services. Visit www.jjkeller.com for more information.

[Editor’s note: This article also appears in the October 2019 issue of Workplace Material Handling & Safety.]

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