Although personal protective equipment (PPE) should only be used as a last resort, PPE still has an important role in protecting employees, particularly when using chemicals. Gordon Tranter looks at one aspect of the use of PPE for work with chemicals; the use of respiratory protective equipment (RPE).

Respiratory protective equipment

RPE is generally of two types:

  1. Respirators that rely on filtering harmful substances in the form of dust, mist, gas or fume from the workplace air; and

  2. Breathing apparatus (BA), which gives an independent supply of breathable air, for example fresh-air hose, compressed airline and self-contained BA. (BA is used in toxic atmospheres or if there is a chance of an oxygen deficiency in the work area.)

Both types are available with a range of face-pieces: masks, hoods, helmets, visors and blouses. Masks are tight fitting face-pieces. Hoods, helmets, visors and blouses are loose fitting face-pieces.

Legal requirements

Surprisingly the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 (PPER), with the exception of regulation 5: Compatibility of personal protective equipment, do not apply where any of the following Regulations apply:

  • Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH)

  • Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 (CAR)

  • Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 (CAR)

  • Ionising Radiations Regulations 1999 (IRR)

COSHH, CAR, CLAW and IRR all require a risk assessment to be carried out to identify which harmful substances are present, how workers can be harmed, and how to prevent exposure. All of these Regulations require that RPE should only be used in addition to all other control measures if the combination of these measures fails to achieve adequate control of exposure. The justification for using RPE should be clear in the risk assessment. Under the Confined Spaces Regulations 1997 RPE should be a last resort, except for rescue work.

The law says that RPE used at work must be:

  • adequate and provide the wearer with effective protection

  • suitable for the intended use

  • ‘CE’-marked

  • selected, used and maintained by properly trained people

  • be correctly maintained, examined and tested

  • correctly stored.

Under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 201,3 the malfunction of BA should be reported where the malfunction causes a significant risk of personal injury to the user; or if during testing immediately prior to use, the malfunction would have caused a significant risk to the health and safety of the user had it occurred during use.

CE marking

Any RPE used must comply with the requirements of the Personal Protective Equipment Regulations 2002 and be ‘CE’ marked. Equipment must meet the basic health and safety requirements (BHSR) of the EC Personal Protective Equipment Directive (89/686/EEC) to be entitled to carry the ‘CE’ mark. Manufacturers tend to use Harmonised European Standards for Personal Protective Equipment as the preferred means of demonstrating equipment conformity with the BHSRs.

Employers should not take ‘CE’ marking as indicating that an RPE device is automatically adequate and suitable for their application. Employers have the responsibility of selecting the correct RPE to meet their specific requirements. They should also be aware that cheap PPE, with counterfeit ‘CE’ compliance certificates, is on the market and will offer only limited protection.


Selection of RPE should consider three things:

  • the harmful substance(s)

  • the task and the environment in which it is carried out

  • the persons likely to be affected

Assigned protection factors

The selection process should identify the RPE needed to reduce exposure to the level required to protect the wearer’s health. Each RPE type and class is categorised by an assigned protection factor (APF). The APF is a number rating that indicates how much protection that RPE is capable of providing. APFs can be either: 4; 10; 20; 40; 200 or 2000. Each number indicates the extent to which the RPE will reduce the wearer’s exposure, for example an RPE with an APF of 10 will, if properly worn, reduce the exposure by a factor of 10.

Suppliers of hazardous substances or mixtures that are used in the workplace are required to provide a safety data sheet (SDS). This should contain information on: health hazards; forms of the substances contained in the product; and the type of RPE necessary to work with it. If the substance has a workplace exposure limit (WEL) the APF can be calculated by dividing the quantity of the substance in the air by the WEL. Guidance on the type of RPE that should be used for certain work activities, such as cutting or heating certain materials, which may generate airborne harmful substances, is available in the HSE COSHH essentials: Easy steps to control health risks from chemicals guidance sheets.

If none of the above methods provide the type of RPE needed it will be necessary to calculate the protection factor. The Scottish Centre for Healthy Working Lives has developed an online tool, in conjunction with HSE, to assist in the selection of RPE, based on the same methods as used to develop COSHH Essentials: Easy Steps to Control Health Risks from Chemicals.

Detailed guidance on the selection of RPE is given in HSG: 53 Respiratory Protective Equipment at Work: A Practical Guide.

Special Cases

COSHH includes special requirements for hazardous substances classed as carcinogens or mutagens, or those that are a potential cause of occupational asthma, for which the exposure has to be reduced to as low a level as is reasonably practicable.

When in an airborne state, biological agents, micro-organisms, can be classed as particles, and can usually be removed by filter-type RPE. However, HSG: 53 recommends the use of equipment fitted with the highest efficiency filter possible (APF of at least 20) to control exposure down to the lowest levels.

When selecting RPE for radioactive materials the RPE should be capable of giving adequate protection not only from radioactivity but also from any other risks to health, such as those covered by COSHH.

If there is a likelihood of the atmosphere being deficient in oxygen, or if the concentration of a substance in the air could be life threatening specialist BA will be required.

The task and the environment

The RPE must be selected so that the wearer can work freely and not be put at risk while carrying out the required task in the circumstances in which the work is carried out. This should take into account conditions, such as strenuous activities, which place a physiological burden on an employee. Where clean air is supplied to a facial mask via hoses or by compressed air cylinders the limitation of freedom of movement must be taken into account.

The person

The RPE must be right for the wearer and enable them to work. It must be of the right size and correctly fit the wearer. Tight-fitting face-pieces should match the wearer’s facial features and seal adequately to their face. To ensure this fit testing should be conducted by a competent person Fit testing ensures that the equipment selected is suitable for the wearer. If RPE is used frequently, repeat fit testing should be carried out on a regular basis. (Details on how to carry out a fit test is given in HSG:53).

Hair, spectacles or other PPE can break the seal on tight-fitting face-pieces allowing the user to breathe in hazardous substances. Workers who have beards, or are unable to be clean-shaven should not use a tight-fitting device and an appropriate loose-fitting device should be chosen. COSHH and the PPER require that other PPE worn is compatible with the RPE and does not interfere with the protection offered by the RPE. One way to achieve this is to use combination products, for example a powered respirator with a head top which incorporates hearing, eye, head and respiratory protection.

Maintenance and storage

Employers who provide any RPE for use at work must take all reasonable steps to ensure that it is properly used, is maintained in an efficient state, in efficient working order, in good repair and in a clean condition. Storage facilities for the RPE should be provided so that it can protect the PPE from contamination, loss or damage from for example harmful substances, damp or sunlight, when not in use.

Thorough examinations and tests

Thorough examinations should be carried out at suitable intervals and suitable records kept of the examinations and tests and of any repairs carried out as a result of these examinations and tests. The examinations and tests of RPE should be carried out in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. Examinations should comprise a thorough visual examination of all parts of the respirator or breathing apparatus to ensure that all parts are present, correctly fitted, and the equipment is in good working order. For breathing apparatus the quality of the air supplied should be tested. The examinations and tests of items of RPE should be made at suitable intervals dependent on how often the RPE is used and the nature of the risks to health.


RPE users should be informed, instructed and trained on:

  • Why they need RPE - the results of the risk assessment

  • Which RPE they need and how to check they have the correct one

  • When to wear the RPE

  • How to wear it correctly

  • When and how to change filters and other consumable parts

  • Why fit testing is required (if relevant)

  • How to maintain the RPE in good condition

  • How to store the RPE when not in use; and

  • When to replace it

  • To stop work and leave the area if they think their RPE isn’t working properly

  • To report defects in the RPE; and

  • The procedures to be followed in an emergency.

Training should not be a one-off exercise. It should be reviewed and updated whenever significant changes are made to the type of work or to the substances used and following a review of the assessment.

All relevant information should be made available to employees or their representatives in accordance with the Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations 1996, and the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977.

The last choice for protection

It should be remembered that RPE should be the last choice for protection. It can only protect the wearer, whereas control measures such as automation, enclosure or extraction of hazardous substances can protect everyone working in the area. Furthermore it is intrusive, and uncomfortable to wear. It can give a sense of false protection, especially when not worn in accordance with the manufacturer’s instruction. In some circumstances it may interfere with communication and vision. Workers with beards or stubble can have considerably difficulty in ensuring an adequate seal of the RPE with their face. In some cases simple, common sense control measures can be significantly cheaper than RPE.


HSE publications:

  • HSG 53: Respiratory Protective Equipment at Work: A Practical Guide

  • COSHH essentials: Easy steps to control health risks from chemicals

  • Respiratory Health in the Workplace: Stoneworkers

  • Respiratory Health in the Workplace: Welding

  • Respiratory Health in the Workplace: Motor Vehicle Repair

  • Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE): A Guide to the Introduction and Use of RPE (DVD)

  • Scottish Centre for Healthy Working Lives: RPE Selector Tool

Last reviewed 21 May 2015