What to do when disposable respirators run out?

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Tuesday, 17 March, 2020 - 15:30
Industry news
National News

There is currently a shortage of disposable particulate respirators in Australia due to an increase in demand from health care workers and from the public and because many Chinese manufacturers have temporarily shut down.

This is an issue for workplaces which require disposable respirators to protect workers from exposure to hazardous dust generated from various work processes, according to Workplace Health & Safety Queensland (WHSQ).

There are many Australian based suppliers that source respirators from countries other than China. These brands of respirator are still being shipped to Australia and include 3M, Moldex, Honeywell, MSA, UVEX, Prochoice, and Draeger.

“If you normally use P2 disposable respirators to protect against mechanically generated particulates (for example, dust from power tools or bonded asbestos removal), a P1 disposable respirator may be an alternative option,” WHSQ said.

“P1 disposable respirators are suitable for mechanically generated particulates while P2 disposable respirators are suitable for both mechanically and thermally generated particulates (e.g. particulates produced by hot processes such as soldering and welding).”

The regulator said organisations should ensure they are getting the maximum use out of the respirators they are able to source:

  • Reschedule work for when disposable respirators are available – for example, when your supplier has promised delivery of the respirators.
  • Ensure respirator use is based upon the risk of exposure and is rationalised – restrict access to respirators to staff who need to use them, i.e. whose work puts them at risk of exposure to a hazardous dust.
  • For airborne contaminants except for asbestos, don’t automatically replace the disposable respirator after a rest break or because it is sweaty and mildly/moderately dirty on the outside. Instead, extend the wear time according to the following criteria:
    • As part of your risk assessment and in consultation with team members document a procedure that specifies a maximum time the disposable respirator can be used before disposal, for example 4-hours or 8-hours, unless any of the following occurs:
      • The breathing resistance becomes excessive to the wearer.
      • Any damage occurs e.g. broken strap, torn or ripped etc.
      • The respirator becomes unhygienic i.e. it has been coughed/sneezed into and the inside is in an unacceptable condition.
      • The outside of the respirator becomes excessively contaminated by dust, or dust has infiltrated the inside of the respirator. It is important to note here that regardless of supply problems with disposable respirators, higher order controls such as local extraction ventilation (LEV) should always be in place to prevent excessive dust that causes such visible contamination of any respirator.
      • The respirator no longer fits tightly to the face.
    • Ensure the documented procedure outlines the provision of containers used to store disposable respirators or a label on the respirator itself between uses, with the user’s name to reduce accidental usage of another person’s respirator.
    • Where respirators are being reused following a rest break, ensure facilities are available to support the following steps:
      • Before removing the respirator – wash hands,
      • Remove respirator and wash face,
      • Ensure a user fit check is completed each time disposable RPE is refitted, and
      • Dispose of RPE if damaged, dust is present inside the RPE or it no longer fits tightly and conforms to the wearer's face.


WHSQ also recommended using suitable alternatives to disposable respirators

  • Use higher order risk controls such as enclosures and LEV that eliminate exposure to airborne contaminants.
  • Consider administrative controls such as a reducing the level and duration of exposure of employees involved in dust generation through work organisation (periodic rotation of employees both through and in areas with potentially significant dust exposures) and limits on overtime.
  • Use other types of respirators which provide the same or greater level of protection such as reusable respirators and powered air-purifying respirators (PAPR). The supply of these respirators has not currently been severely impacted, but this may change.
  • Reusable respirators with replaceable particulate filters can be used as an alternative to disposable respirators. Filters can be used repeatedly so long as both parts are regularly cleaned and stored in a clean container between usage. The cost of this type of respirator is very competitive when compared to ongoing replacement costs of disposable respirators.
  • Reusable PAPR can be used as an alternative to disposable respirators. PAPR units have a wide variety of head-tops and replaceable particulate filters.