Breathe in, breathe out – the finer points of respiratory devices

By Matthew Wood

A number of respiratory devices are available for the mining industry. We speak to the experts for wise words to share with the industry.

Workers in the mining industry remain vulnerable to respiratory illnesses such as silicosis and other forms of lung disease. It is therefore of paramount importance that all the boxes have been ticked when it comes to selecting the right breathing equipment.

MSA Africa respiratory products manager Suraksha Mohun provides a detailed outline of our featured topic, with a strong emphasis on adherence to standards.

“A strict compliance to local standards, before selling the device to the mine, is one of the most important factors to take into consideration,” says Mohun. “MSA Africa complies with SABS standards, which have been adopted from European standards and ISO standards.”

A respirator goes hand in hand with a gas detector, mostly to assess an environment to see if it’s safe for humans to work in.

Once the hazard has been identified using a gas detector, and depending on the containment and its exposure limits, one must choose the necessary respirator.

The masks we wear

Once a respirator is selected, it is critical to ensure that it fits – not unlike determining whether a pair of jeans will fit suitably before purchase.

American occupational health and safety standards demand fit testing. MSA in America (where the company’s head office is situated) has stopped selling paper dust masks, as they don’t always fit. A bad fit means gaps, which allow the ingress of contaminants.

“Half masks on the other hand are popular and being promoted by our MSA affiliates all around the world,” continues Mohun. “These masks have 99% fit and offer protection from contaminants, along with a universal fit.”

Half masks are reusable, and come in small, medium and large sizes, fitting different face sizes.

Whether a respirator will fit the user or not can be established by following a fit testing process. Today’s technology allows the comparison of various mask fits against the user’s face, by using the PortaCount Fit Tester. This fit testing machine assesses a user wearing a half mask while simulating usual behaviour in a mining environment. The PortaCount also has a particulate tester with filters. The test parameters can determine whether the mask is protecting the user or not. Part of the fit testing process entails the use of a nebuliser, which sprays a sweet tasting mist into the user’s respiratory device. If the user cannot taste anything, then the device fits.

If the user fails the test, another mask size or a full-face mask will have to be used.

Many major mining companies have adopted the testing machine. “It’s not about us selling products and making money; it’s about educating and protecting the industry,” says Mohun.

“A respirator goes hand in hand with a gas detector, mostly to assess an environment to see if it is safe for humans to work in.”

There are essentially four very important steps to follow when it comes to selecting the right respiratory device:

  • Identifying the hazard;
  • Understanding the effects on the user;
  • Choosing the correct respirator; and
  • Understanding how to use it.

The same applies when it comes to selecting a hard hat, an earplug or a pair of boots. The user has to know why he/she is using it and how to use it best.

Respirator fit testing will be enforced by labour legislation a few years from now (and not just for the mining industry). MSA is therefore already ahead of the game.

Unfortunately, in today’s mining industry (and other industries) safety guidelines are not always adhered to. Sometimes people don’t take action until it’s too late.

Looking after a respirator is essential. Simply chucking it on the floor can allow contaminants to get in. This applies to any industry where a respirator is used, especially in mining.

Heard from an affiliate

Reinhold Eisenbarth, Dräger regional segment manager (mining) echoes Mohun’s points of information, with specific emphasis on following protocol.

“After having identified the risk and choosing the right respirator, training is key. Dräger has recently established the Dräger Academy to address all training needs of our customers. Visual training material is of key importance in a multilingual society,” says Eisenbarth.


MSA also has a training component in the form of an electronic online tool: MSA-U Training Centre.

The user can type in a chemical, for example sulphuric acid, oxygen or ammonia. The tool will bring up useful data, such as exposure limits and the exact ‘kit’ needed (that is, what type of gas detectors and masks are needed), along with the percentage that can safely be consumed by humans.

The tool is free to use, as the company wishes to disseminate education in the interest of health and safety.


“Every respiratory device has limitations, which are governed by the approval standards and guidelines for these products,” adds Eisenbarth. “The simplest example of a limitation would be a possible lack of oxygen for air purifying respirators.”

As far as expenses are concerned, Eisenbarth outlines cost cutting measures for the industry: “We have recently established a rental and shutdown division. Instead of having to buy equipment that is only used for peak demands or shutdown operations, this equipment can be rented from us. This can significantly reduce the cost for users. Another topic of importance is servicing. Especially in the mining industry, our onsite servicing option is becoming very popular to avoid downtime.”

More on caring for your respirator

3M Respirator Cleaning Wipes both clean and refreshes elastomeric facepiece respirators, thereby eliminating dirt and perspiration. For respirators worn by more than one person, these moist cleaning wipes can be used in-between wearers for hygienic protection.

Having spoken to consultants affiliated with major global brands of the respirator, it is clear that there is more to just purchasing a respirator. It is about acquiring the right respirator for each individual, which needs to be accompanied by proper training in terms of the product’s use.

Education and training – and all the other services that are critical to the use of a respiratory device – are readily available. Not for financial gain, but to achieve a major improvement in health and safety practices in mining.


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