How Real-Time Measurements Improve Respirator Fit Testing and Benefit Workers
(This article is sponsored by TSI, Inc.)
Before explaining how real-time respirator fit measurements can benefit workers and fit test administrators, we must first discuss how to obtain them. Condensation Nuclei Counter (CNC)-based quantitative instruments like the PortaCount® Respirator Fit Tester provide real-time measurements, evaluating respirator fit by measuring air particles both inside and outside a respirator and generating live data.
Fluctuating real-time measurements are effective at improving respirator training for workers, showing them how to best don, adjust, and wear respirators for optimal respiratory protection. Workers who understand how respirators fit know how to achieve and maintain high safety levels and start fit tests better trained. They know how to properly use their mask and how to avoid many pitfalls that lead to failed fit tests.
Live data gives fit test administrators a better understanding of how respirator fit changes with mask positioning and movement. This leads to improved training that can also save fit test administrators’ time.
Speeding Up Respirator Selection
Some respirator types, such as N95 filtering facepieces, are notoriously tricky for certain people to achieve a proper fit with. Whether it be the respirator, the person's face shape, or just a lack of training, fitting N95s to workers can be a complicated, time-consuming, and inefficient process. Administrators and wearers often combine trial-and-error with experience to identify masks that will pass a fit test when worn by a given worker.
Real-time data allows administrators to match workers to the right respirators, helping them select workers’ correct size and type of respirator and quickly reject those that do not fit.
Measuring Safety in Action
When evaluating respirator fit, it is crucial to see not only how a respirator protects wearers in static positions but how the respirator’s protection changes over time with the wearer’s movement. A fit test tells us whether a respirator provides an acceptable amount of protection throughout a full fit test or a single test step. However, only real-time measurements can show how respirator fit changes when wearers move, breathe, and talk, allowing them to examine respirator fit during actual job use conditions. This ability to see exactly how respirators will protect workers on the job allows fit test administrators to help respirator wearers achieve better fits, increasing workers’ safety and their confidence in respiratory protection devices.
Reducing Failed Fit Tests
By using real-time data to improve donning training and mask selection, workers begin fit tests already knowing how to wear respirators that correctly fit. These workers are much more likely to pass fit tests on the first try than those without similar preparation. Real-time measurements can nearly eliminate the time wasted by failed fit tests.
Real-time data collection can provide users with indications of poor respirator fit as a fit test is taking place, allowing them to quickly end fit tests that are certain to fail. The fit test administrator can then focus on finding a solution that will help the wearer achieve a passing result.
Looking Beyond the Fit Test
The rising trend in fit testing is to look beyond the test itself to find additional ways to increase safety for respirator wearers and efficiency in respiratory protection programs. Using real-time data, fit test administrators can improve how workers are prepared for annual fit tests and the fit test process itself.
The fit test is still the "final exam" for verifying respirator fit and knowing the results can increase protection, but it is just as important to improve the process for achieving a passed test. Understanding how real-time measurements can benefit both administrators and workers is key to a modern fit test program's success.
Greg Olson, MS, is a senior industrial hygienist and global product specialist at TSI Inc.