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20th March 2018

Face Fit Testing – What you need to know

We have received several queries from clients on the subject of face fit testing recently. In order to help clarify some issues, we have drafted this briefing guidance note on the key concerns surrounding this topic.

So…What Exactly is Face Fit Testing?

Ok let’s start at the beginning, everyone knows that breathing in dust, gases and fumes at work is not good for you, and so depending on the outcome of your risk assessments, your workers may need to wear respirators or breathing apparatus to protect their health in the workplace. These devices are collectively known as respiratory protective equipment (RPE). RPE basically filters the air to remove harmful substances and provide clean air for workers to breathe.

Where RPE is used, it must be able to provide adequate protection for the wearer – or there is no point in wearing it. RPE can’t protect the wearer if it doesn’t fit properly and has big gaps or leaks,  therefore tight-fitting face pieces need to fit the wearer’s face to be effective.

Face-fit testing is a method of checking that tight-fitting RPE matches the wearer’s facial features and seals adequately to their face. It will also help to identify unsuitable RPE that should not be used. As people come in all sorts of shapes and sizes it is unlikely that one particular type or size of RPE will fit everyone and so fit testing will ensure that the equipment selected is suitable for the wearer.

It is a legal requirement to carry out face fit testing as part of the initial selection of the RPE. If RPE is used frequently it is good practice to ensure repeat fit testing is carried out on a regular basis or if there have been significant change to the wearer facial features (dental work for example).

How is Face Fit Testing Done?

There are two basic types of RPE face fit testing: qualitative and quantitative.

Qualitative fit testing is bascially a simple pass or fail test based on whether the wearer of a mask can detect a test agent.  Whilst they are wearing the mask, a test agent is sprayed into a hood worn over the head.  If the wearer can detect the test agent then the mask leaks and does not provide a good enough fit. This is the fit-testing method used by Lighthouse H&S Consultants with a test agent called bitrex.

Quantitative fit testing is a bit more complicated but provides a numerical measure of the fit, called a fit factor. These tests give an objective measure of face fit. They require specialised equipment and are more difficult to carry out than qualitative methods. Quantitative methods are suitable for full face masks (but can also be used for half masks).

What about Facial Hair?

Masks rely on a good seal against the face so that, when you breathe air in, it is drawn through the filter material where the air is cleaned before being breathed in. If there are any gaps around the edges of the mask, ‘dirty’ air will pass through these gaps and into the wearer’s lungs – thereby making the mask useless. Facial hair (stubble and beards) make it impossible to get a good seal of the mask to the face. It’s important therefore that all operatives are clean-shaven whenever they are wearing tight-fitting masks.

Facial hair grows at different rates and therefore it is impossible to give a set time limit on how long a person can go between shaves.  An older version of the HSE guidance document -HSG 53 stated that a beard was defined as more than 24 hours growth – however this statement is not included in the current version anymore, and should therefore not be relied upon.

Why can’t the fit test prove/disprove if facial hair makes a difference?

This is not permitted under the HSE fit testing protocol OC 282/28 or the guidance notes given by Fit2Fit.  OC 282/28 states in its guidance to fit testers,

“You should not conduct the fit test if there is any hair growth between the skin and the facepiece sealing surface, such as stubble beard growth, beard, moustache, sideburns or low hairline which cross the respirator sealing surface.”

As such (and quite rightly) a competent and reputable fit tester will refuse to test a wearer with any facial hair or stubble.

It’s worthwhile noting though that small moustaches and goatee beards are permitted providing that they do not meet or interfere with the mask’s seal.

What if an Employee refuses to shave their beard off?

If there are good reasons for having a beard (e.g. for religious reasons), alternative forms of RPE, that do not rely on a tight fit to the face, are available such as full face shields/hoods which are known as loose-fitting RPE. This is a type of RPE that doesn’t use masks, and therefore doesn’t have to seal to a person’s face. It usually consists of a blower unit that blows filtered air into a hood, helmet or visor. The constant airflow means that any leakage through gaps in the seal goes outwards, not inwards, keeping the wearer protected.

Loose fitting RPE can be worn with beards, and since it doesn’t have to seal to the wearer’s face, it doesn’t need to be fit tested. It should be noted however that loose-fitting RPE is usually far more expensive than basic masks, but if you have got staff with beards it’s definitely worth a look.

Management and supervision

As an employer, you have a legal responsibility under the Regulations to control substances hazardous to health in your workplace, and to prevent and adequately control your employees’ exposure to those substances. Where the provision of RPE has been identified as a necessary as part of your risk assessment, then it must be both implemented and enforced. You should therefore ensure those wearing RPE follow the measures you put in place.

It should be noted that employees also have a duty of care to themselves in this regard, which means that they should take all steps which are reasonably possible to ensure their health, safety and wellbeing. Employees should be trained to check their RPE every time they use it – this is known as a ‘pre use check’. For reusable masks this can be done by placing a hand over the filter or inlet valve(s) and breathing in. If there is a good seal, the user will experience the mask sucking in toward their face.

Instances of employees failing to comply with company policies should be dealt with the same as any other offence – via normal disciplinary procedures.

Still need more info? – don’t hesitate to give us a call on 0845 459 1724, have a read of the HSE’s full guidance document which you access by clicking here or find out more about our Face Fit Testing service here

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