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Breathing protection against hazards

Take a deep breath and be ready to learn something new about how to protect your health
Jul 14, 2021 / Michal Jirák

Whether you work in the assembly site, agriculture, laboratory or any other potentially hazardous environment, you should protect your respiratory system. Most often, dust but also toxic substances represent an invisible and creeping enemy. The employer is obliged to provide protective equipment to defend the respiratory system of his employees if conditions so require. However, practice is sometimes different. Insufficient professional training and absence of respiratory protection are often sad reality.

It may not have occurred to you yet, but the headache you feel regularly could only be an indication of the bad air you breathe. When inhaled, dust, toxic fumes or poisonous gases can contribute to many problems not only in the lungs but throughout the body.

Air quality in the workplace should be one of the first variables that the employer measures and eventually addresses its weaknesses. Passive or active protection should be provided in case of contaminated working air. The air we breathe has a direct impact on our health. If hazardous substances are present in the air at the place of work, workers are at risk even before they start work.

The most vulnerable groups of workers are people in construction, manufacturing or agriculture. In these industries and other related areas, there are hazardous substances such as dust particles, asbestos, ammonia, carbon monoxide, several aerosols, chemical vapours and others. The specifics of the risk then determine whether you need a dust respirator or need to apply an asbestos-respirator.

The most common substances dangerous to your respiratory system

For a profound image, let's look at the dangers of the workplace environment. The risks can be roughly (some substances can be classified into more categories) divided into six groups:

  • Gases - the most common gases include inert, acidic or organic gases - non-breathable carbon dioxide, poisonous carbon monoxide, irritating chlorine compounds or hydrogen sulphide. The most dangerous gases are caused by oil refining, mining, leather tanning or pulp and paper processing.
  • Volatile substances - The most commonly used volatiles are toluene, acetone or methylene chloride. The most significant hazards are the vapours of these solvents that arise when applying spray coatings, adhesives and paints, or removing impurities. These substances are most frequently encountered by workers dealing with chemical and industrial cleaning or their manufacturers.
  • Dust - usually mechanically formed solid particles with a diameter of 0.5 to 10 microns. Dust particles are the result of several processes ranging from stone breaking, grinding, etching and engraving of metals or wood planning. Examples of potentially harmful dust include wood dust particles, mineral dust, metal dust particles or silica formed during the processing of aggregates.
  • Smoke - most often arises from metal processing through welding, grinding, cutting or melting. We also consider smoke to be a harmful substance, as its inhalation may measurably contribute to the formation of cancer-causing cells.
  • Aerosols - liquid particles with a diameter of 5 to 100 microns are also a danger. Toxic aerosols are most often produced during painting and varnishing. So, you can usually meet them in construction and mechanical engineering.
  • Microfibers - harmful fibres most often originate in asbestos or various fibreglass boards. They release in the air during maintenance and demolition of buildings where a man uses it as an insulating or roofing material.

The World Health Organization also provides additional information about workplace-related harmful substances.

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Do not underestimate the health problems

Chronic and acute health problems are caused by exposure to environments with hazardous concentrations of contaminants. Thanks to prolonged exposure to volatile substances, you can expect the brain damage. Derivatives produced in fumes during welding have similar consequences.

The kidneys problems involve long-term exposure to mercury, which is used in the manufacture of batteries or thermometers. Lung cancer is a possible consequence of breathing asbestos and silicate fibres. Prolonged exposure to chloroform, which is used in the chemical industry to produce refrigerants and solvents, can lead to liver failure.

Health problems caused by exposure to air pollution include itching, watery eyes, irritated skin, headache and breathing difficulties. Immediate eye irritation is created, for example, by sulfuric acid vapours, which are widely used in the production of fertilizers, detergents, lead-acid batteries or dyes. Immediately after exposure to carbon monoxide, which has its application in the chemical industry, headaches or dizziness may occur. Everyone can then notice skin irritation shortly after contact with ammonia, which is an additive to fertilizers and cleaning agents.

However, the most severe acute health complications are associated with respiratory problems that commonly occur after exposure to the vapours of toluene, acetone and other aggressive substances used in the production of solvents or dyes. The gases released during the evaporation of toluene also cause irreversible changes in the human brain and, if exposed to more, may even cause physical scarring of the brain.

Protection

The worker must wear suitable respiratory protection whenever in a contaminated atmosphere. Respiratory protective devices are possible to divide into three basic categories:

  • Respirators - protect the user from particles in the air (e.g. dust). Certified respirators can be used as protection against dust, aerosols, welding fumes, etc. However, they do not protect against gases and volatile substances. They are also not suitable for use with asbestos.
  • Half masks - these protective devices can be used as protection against most gases and volatile substances. It also serves as protection against welding fume. Just be careful when choosing a half-mask filter. It must be identical to the contaminant and replaced at the same time.
  • Full face masks - again provide a higher degree of protection than the devices mentioned above. They can protect the user against most gases, volatiles, dust or welding fumes. Besides, it protects the face, including the eyes, from the irritating effect of substances. Again, the filters used should correspond to the hazardous material and should be replaced regularly.

Specially contaminated working environments will continuously pretend a threat to the airways of all workers. Everyone should be aware of the reality of fatal and long-term health problems resulting from not using breath protection. However, employing legal standards, using appropriate equipment, training and applying preventive measures can significantly reduce the risk of permanent airway damage. For advice or consultation on the use of (not only) respiratory protection, feel free to contact our product specialists.

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