Contractors face many potential hazards on a jobsite. Some of these are obvious and easy to identify, like heavy materials, sharp tools, or exposed electrical wiring. One of the less-obvious dangers is air. Or, at least, the fumes, particles, or vapors in the air that can have short and long-term health consequences. When it comes to job sites where the air quality leaves much to be desired, a respirator quickly becomes a contractor’s best friend.

There are lots of respirator options out there, and they come with different ratings and are meant for different things. It’s crucial to select a respirator that’s right for the job at hand so that you’re protected now and in the future.

Respirator Ratings

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has a rating system to help you know what a respirator will filter out. A rating will begin with one of three letters that indicates whether or not it will keep out oil-based particles:

N: not oil-resistant
R: oil-resistant (up to eight hours of use)
P: oil-proof (up to 40 hours or 30 days of use)
These letters are followed by a number that shows the percentage of particles (that are above 0.3 microns in size) the respirator will filter out. Ratings show the respirator is either 95%, 99%, or 100% (actually 99.7%) effective at filtering particles. Using this system, a respirator with a P95 rating will keep out 95% of particles, including those that are oil-based.

When selecting a respirator, it’s generally a good idea to pick the one with the lowest rating that will do the job. At first glance that may seem counter-intuitive: Don’t I want the maximum protection? Yes and no. While you don’t want to go any lower than is necessary, keep in mind that the more the respirator filters out, the more difficult it becomes to breath while wearing it. So to stay safe and still be reasonably comfortable, get only what you need.

Types of Respirators

Respirators can be disposable or reusable. What you need depends on what you’re doing.

● N95 respirator masks filter out the majority of airborne particles on a job site. They are a common choice if you’ll be sanding, working with fiberglass or pressboard, or in an environment with low to moderate amounts of fumes and vapors.

● If you’ll be working around asbestos or mold, or if you use a lot of chemicals on the job site, you’ll want a respirator with a P100 classification. Asbestos is known to contribute to lung cancer, mold in your lungs can cause serious illness, and chemical fumes and vapors can cause all sorts of damage in your body. When you’re around these hazards, you’ll want the maximum protection.

A reusable respirator will be the best investment in these cases. Not only do they filter out more particles, but they also fit much better on your face to create a good seal. When you buy a reusable respirator, you can choose filters or cartridges specific to the types of gasses or vapors you’ll be around.
Respirators aren’t fun to wear, but they’re essential in conditions where your health and safety are at risk. Lead, asbestos, and fiberglass definitely aren’t things you want to be casual about. Protect your lungs and you’ll not only be able to do your job well now, but you’ll enjoy a healthier and happier retirement in the future.

We love to hear from you. What kind of respirator do you use? Do you recommend it? Let us know in the comments!