An increase in demand for disposable particulate respirators from healthcare workers and the public has led to a shortage in supply, as many Chinese manufacturers have shut down. This presents challenges for workplaces that require disposable respirators to protect workers from exposure to hazardous dusts generated from various work processes. There are many Australian-based suppliers that source respirators from countries other than China; these brands include (but are not limited to) 3M, Moldex, Honeywell, MSA, UVEX, Prochoice and Draeger. These brands are still being shipped to Australia.
Some distributors may not have respirators on display in shopfronts, and could be holding stock for existing customers. Those seeking disposable respirators may need to negotiate a supply, noting they may not be immediately available. Those using P2 disposable respirators to protect against mechanically generated particulates can also use a P1 disposable respirator as an alternative option. Do not allow workers to work without a respirator; airborne contaminants such as silica and asbestos present a significant hazard, and the unavailability of a respirator is not a suitable defence for failing to comply with work health and safety laws.
Those using disposable particulate respirators should ensure they are getting maximum use out of them, by ensuring respirator use is based upon the risk of exposure and is rationalised. Restrict access to respirators to staff who need to use them, and whose work puts them at risk of exposure to hazardous dust. For airborne contaminants (except asbestos), do not replace the disposable respirator after a rest break or if it becomes sweaty/dirty on the outside. Wear time should be extended, unless the breathing resistance becomes excessive to the wearer, if any damage occurs (eg, broken strap, tears or rips) or if the respirator becomes unhygienic (eg, it has been coughed/sneezed into). Wear time should also be extended, unless the outside of the respirator has become excessively contaminated by dust, if dust has infiltrated the inside of the respirator or if the respirator no longer fits tightly to the face.
Employers must provide documented procedure outlines to reduce accidental usage of another person’s respirator; this can be achieved through the provision of containers to store disposable respirators or labels on respirators with the user’s name printed on them. If disposable respirators are unavailable, then employers are encouraged to provide suitable alternatives or to use higher order risks controls such as enclosures and local extraction ventilation (LEV) that eliminate exposure to airborne contaminants. Employers must also consider implementing administrative controls such as reducing the level and duration of exposure of employees involved in dust generation through the periodic rotation of employees and limits on overtime.
Workers can also use other types of respirators that provide the same or greater level of protection, such as re-usable respirators and powered air-purifying respirators (PAPR). The supply of these respirators has not been severely impacted, but this could change. Re-usable respirators with replaceable particulate filters can be used as an alternative to disposable respirators, provided both parts of the filter are cleaned regularly and stored in a clean container between usages. Re-usable PAPR units can be used as an alternative to disposable respirators, and have a variety of head-tops and replaceable particulate filters. However, they require fit resting to the face of each user, as is done for disposable respirators. Disposable or half-face respirators can be qualitatively or quantitatively fit tested. Full-face respirators can only be quantitatively fit tested. Positive pressure respirators must be fit tested under negative pressure conditions.
Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/Kings Access