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Are Employers Required to Cover Costs of Voluntary Respirator Use?

Posted on 9/5/2017 by Lee Ann Coniglione

Often, our OSHA workplace safety posts focus on 29 CFR Standards routinely featured on OSHA's top 10 most frequently cited list.  This time, we focus on one specific aspect of one of those top 10 OSHA Standards; the Respiratory Protection Standard found at 29 CFR 1910.134.

OSHA requires employers to provide respirators when employees may be exposed to elevated levels of air contaminants and when no other means of reducing exposure is feasible. In these situations, OSHA also maintains many, many rules for employers to follow to ensure the respirators do their job and are used safely.

If the level of air contaminants in the workplace is irritating, but not dangerously high, employees may choose to wear respirators even when not required. Even when respirator use is completely voluntary, employers and employees still must follow OSHA rules to ensure that respirators are used properly.


OSHA Requirements for Mandatory Respirator Use

OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Standard (29 CFR 1910.134) is exhaustive. The Standard incorporates numerous required elements which make up an employer-sponsored respiratory protection program. Some of the major elements include the written program, respirator selection, medical evaluations, fit-testing, training, use during emergencies, and program evaluation.


OSHA Requirements for Voluntary Respirator Use

While many of us may be familiar with the respirator fit-testing and training requirements, we may not be as familiar with OSHA’s stance on voluntary use of respirators in the workplace.  Employees who fall into the category of a voluntary use situation typically do so because they choose to wear a respirator for comfort reasons and/or added protection from airborne hazards.
 
Early in OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Standard, in paragraph (c), OSHA mentions some of the required program elements we listed earlier. Several of those elements may also apply to voluntary use situations for the purpose of preventing potential hazards associated with respirator use.

Further down in paragraph (c)(2) we see that if an employer determines that any voluntary respirator use is allowed, then he/she must provide respirator users with a copy of the information contained in Appendix D to the Standard. Below is an excerpt from Appendix D which summarizes the responsibilities of a voluntary respirator user.

If your employer provides respirators for your voluntary use, or if you provide your own respirator, you need to take certain precautions to be sure that the respirator itself does not present a hazard. You should do the following:

1. Read and heed all instructions provided by the manufacturer on use, maintenance, cleaning and care, and warnings regarding the respirators limitations.

2. Choose respirators certified for use to protect against the contaminant of concern. NIOSH, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, certifies respirators. A label or statement of certification should appear on the respirator or respirator packaging. It will tell you what the respirator is designed for and how much it will protect you.

3. Do not wear your respirator into atmospheres containing contaminants for which your respirator is not designed to protect against. For example, a respirator designed to filter dust particles will not protect you against gases, vapors, or very small solid particles of fumes or smoke.

4. Keep track of your respirator so that you do not mistakenly use someone else's respirator.

[29 CFR 1910.134, Appendix D]

When it comes to the written respiratory protection program and voluntary use, this is where we see the specific type of respirator comes into play.

In general, OSHA requires employers to implement those elements of a written program necessary to ensure that any employee who voluntary chooses to wear a respirator is in fact medically able to use the respirator. Furthermore, employers must make sure the respirator is properly being cared for—meaning it is regularly cleaned, properly stored, and properly maintained.  Lastly, the employee must be provided with copies of the information contained in Appendix D of the Standard.


Special OSHA Rules for Filtering Face Masks

The one exception to the rule above is if the respirator in question is a filtering facepiece respirator, such as the particulate-style respirators. If an employee chooses to voluntarily wear a filtering facepiece respirator, then the employer is obligated only to provide the user with a copy of the information contained in Appendix D.

To be clear, when the term “filtering facepiece” is used, OSHA is talking about respirators that can be used for protection from dusts and mists only; not contaminants in gaseous or vapor form. As such, the filtering facepiece category of respirators does not include half-face, full-face, or powered air purifying respirators (PAPRs).


Cost-Sharing for Voluntary Use of Respirators

In terms of how voluntary respirator use is woven into the OSHA standard, it is the agency’s intent that the employer would NOT become liable for any costs associated with voluntary use of filtering facepiece respirators (apart from providing a copy of Appendix D).

If employers allow the voluntary use of respirators other than filtering facepieces, than the costs associated with ensuring that the respirator itself does not create a hazard (e.g., medical evaluations, maintenance) must be provided at no cost to the employee.

If you’ve ever been told that an employer is obligated to pay for employee respirators, even when the use is completely voluntary, and you were a bit confused as to why that was, hopefully this clarifies things. What it really comes down to is respirator type when dealing with voluntary use, as well as the associated costs to ensure its safe use by employees.


Effective Online OSHA Safety Training

Be confident your employees know how to select, fit, and use respirators at your site! The Respiratory Protection online course is designed to meet OSHA’s annual training requirement for employees who use respirators at 29 CFR 1910.134.

Available 24/7, Lion’s interactive OSHA safety training courses help employees identify, mitigate, and avoid the hazards in your workplace. Employees who complete OSHA training at Lion.com are ready to make on-the-job decisions that keep themselves and their co-workers safe. Our 10 Hour OSHA General Industry course focuses on hazard identification, avoidance, and control and prevention measures and includes several modules on electrical safety.
See all OSHA courses at www.Lion.com/OSHA
 

Tags: 29, CFR, osha, respirator protection, workplace safety

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