Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE)

Last reviewed on 01/08/2014 13:04

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.

Select the right RPE

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.

Start the RPE Selector Tool 

Quick links

What is a hazardous substance?

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:

  • Gases such as chlorine and ammonia
  • Liquids such as solvents, petrols and paints
  • Solids and dusts such as slate, powdered chemicals, flour, cement dust, silica and wood dust
  • Solids that produce dangerous gases with moisture (e.g. cyanide, phosphide) or that give off vapours (e.g. phenol, metaldehyde, naphthalene, iodine)
  • Fumes arising from welding, soldering and burning metals
  • Fibres such as asbestos, glass wool, rockwool and refractory ceramic fibres
  • Mists and sprays such as battery acid mist from re-charging or from tasks such as paint spraying
  • Vapours generated by petrol, solvents, thinners or products like paints and varnishes.

Breathing in hazardous substances can cause ill health. In some cases it can lead to early death.

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What is RPE?

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:

  • Respirators (filtering devices), use filters to remove contaminants in the workplace air. Filter selection and use requires due care and attention to ensure the safety of wearers. Respirators should never be used in situations with reduced oxygen levels.
  • Breathing apparatus (BA), needs a supply of air from a clean source (e.g. an air cylinder or air compressor). BA may be used in situations with reduced oxygen levels.

Both types are available with a range of facepieces: masks, hoods, helmets, visors and blouses.

  • Masks are tight fitting facepieces. They rely on having a good seal with the wearer’s face. To ensure a good seal, the size and shape of the mask must be matched to the wearer’s face. There should not be any facial hair in the face seal region and the masks must be worn as recommended by the manufacturer. Masks will require facepiece fit testing for each wearer when selected for the first time to ensure that they are suitable.
  • Hoods, helmets, visors and blouses are loose fitting facepieces. They are suitable for those who wear glasses, have facial hair or facial markings (e.g. deep scars) in the face seal region. These facepieces rely on an adequate flow of clean air being delivered to them to prevent contaminant leaking in. They are only used on fan-powered respirators and air-fed breathing apparatus.


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When can I use RPE?

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.

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Why is RPE a last choice for protection?

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 intrusive, so not many people would want to wear it for any length of time
  • It can be uncomfortable to wear
  • It can give a sense of false protection, especially when not worn in accordance with the manufacturer’s instruction
  • It may interfere with communication and vision
  • It can interfere with the wearer’s personal freedom such as wanting to have a goatee beard or to come to work with stubble
  • It can be expensive in the long run when compared to simple, common sense control measures
  • It can cause disturbance to make-up, jewellery and hair style.


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What should I do to ensure RPE is used correctly at work?

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 correct equipment

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.

Train users

Inform and train RPE users on the following:

  • Why they need RPE
  • Which one they need
  • How to check they have the right one
  • When to wear the RPE
  • How to wear it correctly
  • When to change filters and other consumable parts
  • How to maintain the RPE in good condition
  • How to clean it
  • How to store the RPE when it’s not in use
  • When to replace it

Maintain your equipment

You should ensure that RPE is maintained in accordance with the manufacturer’s instruction and COSHH regulations.

Supervise staff

RPE wearers should be supervised to ensure they are using the RPE in accordance with the manufacturer’s instruction and any training provided.

Dispose of RPE safely after use

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.

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About the RPE Selector Tool

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.

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RPE Selector Tool – worked example

Use the information in this worked example [pdf 23 kB] to practice using the Selector Tool.

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What information do I need to use the RPE Selector Tool?

The Selector Tool uses information about your work area:

  • is it an open work area like an office or an open workshop with free movement of air, where people move in and out freely?
  • is it a confined space?
  • does it lack oxygen (below the levels found in fresh air)?
  • can substances (e.g. gases, fluids, solid, sprays) be released suddenly into the work area with or without warning?
  • is the work area flammable or can it become flammable when the task is undertaken?

You need answers to these questions, and the tool gives you reminders and help. You also need the following:

  • You must have up-to-date Safety Data Sheets if you buy, make or formulate the substance in your workplace. You will use the R-Numbers or H-Numbers given in Part 15 of the Safety Data Sheets.
  • You need to know the physical state in air of the supplied product when you use it at your workplace: vapour, dust, mist, fume or gas.
  • You need to know how much substance is used in the task - small, medium or large quantities, as defined in the tool.

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.


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Facepiece fit testing

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:

  • suppliers produce face masks in a range of sizes and shapes
  • masks must fit closely and tightly to the wearer's face to function correctly
  • wearers must be provided with the right size and shape of mask
  • fit testing is required when the worker is first provided with a facepiece, with periodic re-testing as good practice.

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.

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Select the right RPE

Start the RPE Selector Tool 

Further information on RPE issues

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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