“In 2019, 1,082 workers per 100,000 were diagnosed with a work-related, respiratory condition many of which could have been prevented by a properly fitted mask,” says Mark Smith, technical director of Simon Safety who is also an accredited face fit tester. “Ten years earlier (1999), that number was 3,418 so we’ve come a long way but 1,082 per thousand is still too many. The majority of those workers work in hazardous engineering environments.
“Whichever way you look at it, that number is unacceptable. It’s criminal that lives are still being lost and compromised by people’s work. It’s criminal that our health service is having to treat patients who have been made sick by their work. And it’s criminal that some employers are still not taking their responsibilities seriously enough and may end up in prison for that negligence,” says Mark Smith.
HSE now on the face mask case
During Covid, the Health & Safety Executive visited circa 1,700 engineering businesses and gained a deep insight into the state of UK engineering sector’s health and safety.
Given how much attention face masks were given thanks to the Covid pandemic, you would think that people who use masks professionally would know how to wear them but that’s not the case from what the HSE saw in the engineering frontline.
More often than not, the HSE inspectors saw people wearing masks which weren’t the right size, weren’t the right fit, leaked all around, didn’t take into consideration both facial hair and how long they were being worn.
Engineers - and those responsible for their safety – thought it was OK to wear a mask for an entire job, no matter how long that job took ie several hours. A mask’s effectiveness decays fast once it becomes water-logged with condensation after prolonged wear. Masks need to be regularly refreshed to work efficiently.
Why so many masks are wrong
“There’s a hierarchy of control and respiratory control is at the bottom of that list, which means that your mask and other PPE is your last line of defence,” says Mark Smith of Simon Safety, which is a registered member of the British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF) and the Registered Safety Suppliers Scheme (RSSS).
“As soon as a toxin is inhaled, it’s in your system because that’s how breathing works.
“And if a mask doesn’t fit someone’s face - and we’re all different – it’s never going to protect you.”
Getting masks fit for purpose
In a Hazardous Engineering Solutions exclusive, Simon Safety shares a simple guide to help you stay safe – both employee and employer – if you follow four steps:
- Get the right mask.
- Fit the mask and train.
- Maintain the mask.
- Regularly review.
Step 1: Get the right mask
The right mask is the mask you’ve identified which meets your needs through a risk assessment.
Type of mask:
- Disposable half masks.
- Reusable half mask.
- Full face masks.
- Powered air purifying respirators (PAPR).
- Breathing apparatus.
What’s right for the worker and their:
- Type of task.
- Face shape.
- Physical build.
- Facial features eg scars/warts.
- Facial hair (only certain equipment will work with beards).
Does the mask need to work with:
- Prescription spectacles (it’s the employer’s responsibility to ensure the operator’s spectacles fit inside the mask).
- Eye protection.
- Ear defenders.
- Helmet/other head protection.
When several vulnerabilities need PPE – e.g. eyes, ears, head and respiratory – combined protection is best because it’s easier and faster to use which aids productivity. Where a combination of different items of PPE is used, it is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that the combination is effective.
What’s right for the work environment:
- Duration of task e.g. how long will the task take? If the task involves wearing a close-fitting mask, the worker should take a break at least every hour. Different PPE is needed for day or night operation and inside or outside.
- Work rate - does the task involve movement/perspiration? That may mean the mask could loosen over time.
- Nature of the toxins – eg they may be flammable, explosive, aerosol, vapour, dust etc.
Your compliance obligations:
- Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
- Fit testing is referred to in HSG53 – the HSE’s guide for employers to know (pages 19/20) and table 20 lists what type of mask employees need to wear.
- Fit testing brochure INDG479 – describes the methods you should use unless you have a process that’s as good or better. If you’re deviating from this guidance, you’ll need to prove good or better practice, which can be tricky so it’s usually best to stick to INDG479.
Step 2: Fit the mask and train
A competent person must conduct the fit test.
Find out exactly how the HSE defines ‘competent’ on their website. It’s easier to prove that someone’s incompetent than to prove they are competent.
The HSE and the BSIF (British Safety Industry Federation) define ‘competence’ as an individual fit tester that has been accredited to the Fit2Fit scheme. Accredited testers have proven an extensive knowledge of respiratory protective equipment in conjunction with demonstrating a high level of competence in one or more of the accepted fit testing methods.
Quantitative test methods – eg in a lab test chamber or using a portable device, how effective is the mask at filtering contaminants? Does the performance comfortably exceed the minimum expected pass rate?
Qualitative test – eg wearing the mask under a testing hood, can you discern bitter vs sweet smell?
Does the mask fit?
Ask yourself: “Would I be happy for my nearest and dearest to work regularly in a hazardous environment with a mask that fits like this?”
Step 3: Maintain the mask
- Every time you use it, check it over.
- Before every use, perform a ‘fit check’ as shown during your formal fit test.
- Closely inspect and keep a written record of the check at least once every month.
Step 4: Regularly review the mask and its fit
- A competent person must conduct tests.
- Follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Appropriate frequency: when a person’s face changes eg due to significant weight gain/loss or significant dental work.
- Recorded appropriately for the candidate’s training / HR records.
- Remind everyone of best practice of properly fitting masks on notice boards so malpractice can be called out.
- Review every one to two years to ensure all protection is suitable for the people and the environment.
In 2024, the Health & Safety at Work Act will be 50 years old.
The appeal from Mark Smith from Simon Safety: “We must all continue to learn from our mistakes if we’re to cut work-related respiratory illness and death in the hazardous engineering industry.
“Independent and authoritative research suggests if your average DIYer breathes in a small amount of spray-paint, two weekends a year, it might have no detrimental impact. But if you’re doing that every working day, it has a cumulative effect. Slow and incremental daily doses often lead to debilitating chronic, long-term health conditions or can be killers and contribute to premature death,” says Mark Smith of Simon Safety.
“Today’s filtering technology means respiratory masks efficiently trap and protect your lungs from the smallest particles providing they fit correctly.
“The mistakes made in the past – such as the tragedy of asbestos – were due to ignorance. But we now know better. The internet puts all the appropriate information at our fingertips. It’s criminal not to act on it,” says Mark
“If you’re concerned about face masks or other piece of PPE call 01646 600750 or visit Simon Safety’s website. Take advantage of our expertise and let’s make 2024 a reason for celebration of how far we’ve come rather than regret.”