Facial hair is affecting respiratory protection for construction workers and employers need to address the issue, argues George Elliott, senior application engineer for the Personal Safety Division at 3M.
The construction industry is a high risk sector for respiratory illnesses. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), each year around 3,000 workers in construction suffer with breathing and lung problems believed to be caused, or made worse, by their work and more than 500 workers are estimated to die each year from exposure to silica.
Because of the broad range of jobs within the industry, construction workers face multiple hazards that could cause respiratory illnesses, including respirable crystalline silica (found in common building materials such as bricks and cement); wood dust; welding fume; asbestos; and isocyanates.
Facial hair is making the situation even more hair raising. According to a 2017 YouGov survey, 42 per cent of men now have some form of facial hair, of which, 44 per cent sport a full beard – up 27 per cent from five years ago. And according to beard fashionistas, the beard is set to remain the staple style-statement for some time yet.
But for UK construction workers, being unshaven, whether for fashion, religious or cultural reasons, could pose a deadly health risk if the suitable Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) isn’t used.
Facial hair growth, directly under the seal of tight fitting RPE will interfere with the seal required when using devices such as a filtering facepieces, reusable half masks or reusable full face masks. All these forms of RPE are designed to form a tight fitting seal around the face to ensure the user is protected against hazardous substances.
In 2015, a study was undertaken by the HSE on 15 volunteers looking at the effects of wearer stubble on the protection provided by certain tight fitting facepieces. The report (RR1052), available via the HSE website, affirmed the guidance that wearers of tight fitting facepieces should be clean shaven in the area of the mask seal.
When RPE is issued by an employer it is important that workers are taught how to use, check, maintain and correctly fit their respiratory protection, and are educated on the importance of being clean-shaven if wearing a tight fitting facepiece.
All workers who wear tight fitting facepieces are legally required to undergo face fit testing by a competent person to ensure the RPE fits them. A tight fitting facepiece will only protect the wearer from contaminants if the respirator is able to achieve a good seal. As beards and facial hair will impede the ability of a facepiece to form a tight seal, those with facial hair under the seal should not be face fit tested and should not wear tight fitting RPE. The ‘clean-shaven’ message must be delivered at the time of fit testing and whenever tight fitting RPE is used at work.
With this continuing beard boom, employers and employees need to be aware that there are RPE options for those who do sport facial hair.
Typically these are known as loose fitting headtops (without a tight seal to the face) which are afforded either filtered powered air through a battery powered turbo unit, known as a powered air system, or a regulator providing breathable quality air from a secondary air source, known as an supplied air system.
These loose fitting headtops provide a seal made under the chin or around the neck and can be worn by those with certain facial hair to give them their required respiratory protection. Loose fitting devices do not need to be face fit tested either. A wide range of headtops are available on the market to ensure the correct level of protection can be met for multiple applications.
Certain loose fitting headtops also integrate other items of PPE. For example, some headtops can integrate a hard hat, a face visor, hearing protection as well as respiratory protection. Compatible solutions like this are favoured by construction firms as often these items of PPE are required at the same time for task specific applications.
In many cases, the consequences of not wearing the correct PPE are obvious. It’s easy to imagine the dangers of having something fall from height and hit your head, so the wearing of a hard hat is simply common sense. Airborne hazards, on the other hand, can be invisible to the naked eye, odourless and tasteless, and their impact on the body can take years rather than minutes to show. This often means that they can be easier to dismiss.
Not wearing the correct respiratory protection, or wearing it incorrectly, can allow airborne hazards to get into the lungs and cause irreparable damage. Employers and employees must understand the impact that facial hair can have on the effectiveness of respiratory protective equipment and take the appropriate steps to protect their staff and themselves.