Protecting health through comfort

Alan McArthur of diversified technology company 3M explains why comfort counts when it comes to personal protective equipment (PPE)

Every respirator has an assigned protection factor (APF)

Alan McArthur of diversified technology company 3M explains why comfort counts when it comes to personal protective equipment (PPE)

Statistics from the British Lung Foundation show that respiratory disease is the second-biggest killer in the UK and deaths from occupational lung disease are rising rapidly1. 3M has been concerned about inadequacies in the use of respiratory protection for some time and, consequently, has started to investigate the use of PPE in general, with specific interest in the level of comfort. Fundamentally, if PPE is uncomfortable or impedes the wearer’s job it is unlikely to be worn correctly for a sustained amount of time and therefore will not be able to deliver a consistent level of protection from potential hazards.

An independent report2 commissioned by 3M comprised interviews with 69 respiratory protective equipment (RPE) users, including health and safety managers. When asked to rate product attributes, protection and comfort were cited as the two most important features when selecting RPE.

Every respirator has an assigned protection factor (APF). APF figures are designed to give a reasonable safety margin in the use of correctly selected respirators. If properly fitted and used, the actual protection received may be higher than the APF. However, protection levels can drop dramatically when a respirator is not used, even for a short period of time.

For example, 3M technicians calculated that if an FFP2 respirator is removed for 10% of the time – the equivalent of just 48 minutes in an 8hr shift – the actual protection factor is almost halved.

The equation used to calculate protection levels is:

EPF = Effective Protection Factor

P = % of time a respirator is worn

APF = Assigned Protection Factor

Examples for an FFP2 Respirator (APF=10)

If P = 100% EPF = 10

If P = 90% EPF = 5.3

Significant research and development has led to the creation of new products that use new technologies specifically to improve overall comfort. This ensures that PPE will be worn more consistently, helping to protect the health of workers.

While PPE has to meet set standards, these do not necessarily address comfort. It is also important to remember comfort is subjective – what is comfortable for one person may not be comfortable for another. It is therefore impossible to change just one feature of a product, therefore a range of technologies are used to improve overall comfort rather than just one particular aspect.

Significant research and development has led to the creation of new products that use new technologies specifically to improve overall comfort

When developing new PPE to address comfort, consideration is given to all aspects of the product. This includes pressure from straps on respirators; headbands on hearing protection and the side arms of eye protection; the materials used and how these feel against the skin; shape and fit. However, it is important to balance comfort with protection and develop products that are still fit for purpose and instill confidence in the user.

Once the matter of comfort has been addressed, there can also be an issue with equipment not being fitted properly. If equipment is ill-fitting, the wearer will still be risking potential health problems.

For example, respirators with a tight fitting facepiece must only be used by clean shaven wearers. Users should also be fit tested to ensure the model of respirator chosen can seal well to their face.

HSE guidance on fit testing stipulates that where fit testing is required, it must be conducted by a competent person. Up until now, fit testers of RPE have not been accredited, making the selection of a competent person uncertain. There may be a lack of knowledge, skills, experience or understanding of fit testing, or these may have deteriorated over time.

However, an accreditation scheme for fit testers has recently been launched. The BSIF Fit2Fit accreditation scheme has been developed in collaboration with industry and the HSE and the aim is to reduce significantly instances of occupational ill health by increasing the correct fitting of RPE.

The Fit2Fit scheme is designed to confirm the competency of any person performing face fit testing by passing an industry recognised exam, demonstrating that they have a thorough knowledge of the HSE guidance on fit testing and that they know how to fit test in practical circumstances.

There is a dauntingly wide range of PPE in the marketplace but through continued r&d, better products will continue to emerge at all levels of the market. As highlighted through 3M’s research, it is important that consumers can feel confident in the level of protection supplied by PPE but still be able to buy a better product, which addresses comfort, ultimately encouraging the user to wear the PPE for longer periods and not put themselves at risk.

References

1. Stats from the British Lung Foundation

2. SKP Analysis, 3M MFR Final Report

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