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RPE (respirators and breathing apparatus) are used in many workplaces to protect workers when working with hazardous substances, such as gases, solvents, powdered chemicals and sprays. RPE comes with various forms of facepiece, such as helmets, visors, hoods or masks.
It should only be used as the last option after you have taken every other reasonable step to control the exposure, and improve air quality and ventilation in your work area. Your justification for using RPE should be clear in your risk assessment, which needs to be written if you have five or more employees.
If you use RPE, or are responsible for the selection and use of RPE in your company, this page will provide you with information and guidance on how, when and why to select the correct equipment.
You can use the RPE Selector Tool below to determine what kind of equipment you or your workers will need for a hazardous substance, activity and work area involved.
Before using the tool however, we recommend reading the information below and watching the Clean Air? Take Care! campaign toolbox video, Helping you to correctly select and use respirators (external link), which provides a summary on selection and use of RPE at work.
Hazardous substance is defined in the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) regulations (external link) as substances hazardous to health, including chemicals (e.g. mercury, ammonia gas, caustic soda) and products (e.g. paints, oils, fertilisers).
The suppliers of a hazardous substance must provide a Safety Data Sheet (SDS) to help safe use. Hazardous substances can also be generated as by-products during a work activity. For example, wood dust, stone dust and welding fume.
Hazardous substances can be present in the workplace in different physical states, including:
Breathing in hazardous substances can cause ill health. In some cases it can lead to early death.
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RPE is a type of personal protective equipment (PPE). It is designed to protect the wearer against inhaling hazardous substances in the workplace. RPE is divided into two main types:
Both types are available with a range of facepieces: masks, hoods, helmets, visors and blouses.
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The law requires employers to prevent or control the exposure of employees and others (e.g. sub-contractors) to hazardous substances at work.
Exposure should be controlled by practicable measures, with RPE used as a last resort - when inhalation exposure risk remains after you have put in place other reasonable controls. It may also be used as additional protection in case other control measures fail to operate.
Note: for pesticides, the product label stipulates what protective equipment to use. You must use that protective equipment, which might include RPE.
RPE can only protect the wearer. Control measures such as automation, enclosure or extraction of hazardous substances can protect everyone working in the area. Other drawbacks of RPE:
RPE is used in many workplaces, but to offer adequate protection RPE must be correctly selected, used and maintained.
Inadequate protection can happen when the RPE hasn’t been matched to the hazardous substance, the work environment, the wearer or other personal protective equipment (PPE) worn. Other problems include poorly or incorrectly maintained RPE, incorrect wearing, misuse or poor storage.
Select the RPE, including filters, that is right for the substance, environment in which it is going to be used (e.g. reduced oxygen level, up and down stairwells), task and wearer. You can use the RPE Selector Tool on this page to determine what kind of equipment you or your workers will need.
Inform and train RPE users on the following:
You should ensure that RPE is maintained in accordance with the manufacturer’s instruction and COSHH regulations.
RPE wearers should be supervised to ensure they are using the RPE in accordance with the manufacturer’s instruction and any training provided.
Safely dispose of damaged or used RPE and its components, considering the heath and safety of waste handlers. You should also take account of local waste regulations.
The RPE Selector Tool is a web tool developed jointly by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), NHS Health Scotland and Healthy Working Lives (HWL).
The tool is based on HSE’s guidance on respiratory protective equipment at work (external link) and has nine pages, with a 'progress bar' to help navigation. Move to the next page using the orange buttons.
Before moving to a new page, you have to confirm that your inputs are correct. Always read the information and choices carefully before entering an answer.
Try the worked example [pdf 23KB] to learn how to use the RPE Selector. It will take about 10 - 15 minutes to familiarise yourself with the tool; once familiar, it should take about five minutes to use.
Output is a printable record. The Selector is a generic assessment system to help you, and the recommendations are advisory.
Use the information in this worked example [pdf 23 kB] to practice using the Selector Tool.
The Selector Tool uses information about your work area:
You need answers to these questions, and the tool gives you reminders and help. You also need the following:
If your task or process creates a substance as a by-product, (e.g. wood dust, welding fume, oil mist), the selector covers a range of process-generated substances.
It is unlikely that one size of mask will fit all employees in a workplace. Any beard, stubble, thick sideburns, long hair or moustache coming into contact with the face seal area of a face mask can seriously affect the fit of the mask.
A similar effect can be caused by: (i) deep cuts or scars, heavy wrinkles, moles, warts etc; (ii) spectacles; (iii) goggles; (iv) hearing protectors with head bands; (v) neck bands of a helmet or a head protector; (vi) fashion jewellery worn on the face.
To help ensure a good fit:
Note: By law, RPE must provide adequate protection for individual wearers. Every wearer should undergo fit testing to ensure their RPE facepiece is suitable.
RPE fit testing should be conducted by a competent person - you should take steps to ensure that any person you engage as a fit tester is appropriately trained, qualified and experienced.
The British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF) has introduced a scheme for fit testers, which may provide evidence to help you decide whether a fit tester is competent. You could also ask your RPE supplier.
Download resources to help you use the RPE Selector:
Visit the Clean Air? Take Care! campaign website (external site) which provides a summary and resources on correct selection and use of RPE at work.
HSE provides information on hazardous substances and RPE, including factsheets for workers and guides for safety representatives. All are free to download from the HSE COSHH pages (external site).
Watch HSE video on lung disease (external site) HSE respiratory protection series and HSE chemicals guidance pages.
Respiratory Protective Equipment at work (HSG53): A practical guide – free download (external site).
COSHH Essentials (external site) This Health and Safety Executive site guides employers through the risk assessment and control process for common tasks and substances, including respiratory sensitisers.
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