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Voluntary Respirator Use in the Workplace - What Are the Employer's Responsibilities?


In many workplaces, respirator use is not required, but some employees voluntarily choose to use respiratory protection. Often employees choose to wear a respirator because of bothersome odors or nuisance dust, even though air monitoring of the work indicates that employee exposures to air contaminants are below established regulatory levels. The employer may decide whether or not to allow the voluntary use of respirators in the workplace. Respirators used on a voluntary basis may be supplied by the employee or provided by the employer. While OSHA does allow the voluntary use of respirators in the workplace, the employer still shares some responsibility for the safe use of the respirator and must follow certain requirements.

OSHA requires respirators to be worn whenever such equipment is necessary to protect the health of employees. In order for respiratory use to be voluntary within a workplace, the employer must first determine that an airborne hazard does not exist in the workplace that would necessitate the mandatory use of a respirator. Determination of a potential hazard is not just based on permissible exposure limits (PELs) for airborne contaminants. In some cases, illness or injury may result from exposure to a contaminant for which there is no PEL. In these instances, respiratory protection may be necessary under the OSHA General Duty Clause.

The employer's responsibilities related to voluntary respirator use are determined by the type of respirators employees are allowed to use. If the only type of respirator voluntarily used by employees is a dust mask (also called a disposable respirator or filtering facepiece) the employer must provide the employee with the information contained in Appendix D of the Respiratory Protection Standard included in 29 CFR 1910.134. This one page document includes some general warnings and guidance regarding respirator use. The employer must also ensure that the voluntary use of the dust mask will not itself create a hazard for the employee. Conditions that may cause a dust mask to pose a hazard to employees may include use of dirty dust masks or dust masks that interfere with the employee's ability to work safely, such as interfering with sight or communication. Medical evaluations and respirator fit testingare not required for employees prior to the use of dust masks. Although the use of NIOSH-approved disposable dust masks or respirators is strongly recommended, it is not a requirement when the respirator use is voluntary.

If the employer allows voluntary use of tight-fitting respirators or other respirators outside of the dust mask respirators, then the employer takes on additional responsibilities. The employer must then have a written respiratory protection program that covers the elements that could affect the health of employees who wear the respirators. The employer must ensure that the employee is medically able to use the respirator, that the respirator dose not present a health hazard to employees and must provide the employee a copy of Appendix D of the Respiratory Protection Standard. As part of ensuring that a respirator does not present a health hazard to employees, the employer may be responsible for ensuring the respirators are cleaned, maintained and stored properly, even when the respirators are supplied by the employee. To the extent that the above items may create an expense, such as the cost of a medical evaluation prior to respirator use, these costs would be covered by the employer. OSHA, though, does not require that a respirator be fit tested prior to use, if the respirator is used on a voluntary basis only in the absence of airborne hazards in the workplace.

When respirator use is mandated by an employer, the employer is responsible for implementing all of the elements of a respiratory protection program including development of a written respiratory protection program, medical evaluation of employees prior to respirator use, fit testing of respirators, annual employee training on respirator use, and proper use, cleaning, maintenance and storage of respirators. Additionally, the employer is responsible for supplying the respirators and replacement filter cartridges.

California OSHA Respiratory Protection Standard, in general, follows federal OSHA's standard. Other states may have different or additional requirements related to voluntary respirator use. Employers should check with the their state occupational safety and health agency, if applicable, regarding voluntary respirator use in the workplace.

OSHA has developed a very useful guidance document, "Questions and Answers on the Respiratory Protection Standard", which provides answers to the most frequently asked questions on respiratory protection. For additional information regarding OSHA's Respiratory Protection Standard or if you have additional questions regarding voluntary respirator use at work, feel free to contact NES' Environmental Health and Safety Department at (916) 353-2360.


EM-Assist, Inc. and Network Environmental Systems, Inc. (NES), announced a joint venture to provide environmental and health-related web-based training courses. These are areas of considerable experience for the two companies. With an extensive list of e-learning clients, EM-Assist's role is to enhance a series of training courses originally authored by NES, who has nationally-renowned expertise in clandestine laboratory and environmental, health and safety training. The team's first course has lined up is the conversion of NES' existing Hazardous Waste Operations (HAZWOP) Refresher on-line training course to an interactive online training session. The objective of the course is to provide training to employees of public and private entities working at hazardous waste sites or who respond to chemical emergencies. The joint venture has an important endeavor lined up to provide first responders, worldwide, an effective online training resource on the hazards associated with methamphetamine labs. The "Clan Lab Training" course will help law enforcement personnel to protect themselves and the public.

The courses will be available on-line, twenty-four hours a day, through EM-Assist's proprietary web-based learning portal. Jerry Bucklin, Presidents and CEO of NES, says, "EM-Assist is a proven leader in creating e-learning solutions and we are honored to be working with them to develop next generation training programs. Our collaboration leverages the flexibility that e-training provides without sacrificing the interactivity of classroom learning." Dana Curran, CEO of EM-Assist, says, "We are excited to get involved in assisting community and government agencies with the national crisis that illegal drug labs have become. NES has been doing very important work that we support whole-heartedly. We're taking NES' outstanding training content to the next level, making it interactive and focusing on instructional design. Industrial operations, Department of Defense, DEA, and other law enforcement agencies will benefit with this low-cost, accessible training approach."

EM-Assist's e-learning division, called Mindivity, has quickly become one of the company's fastest growing business segments, providing customized training and web-based courseware for government and commercial enterprises. NES has trained thousands of law enforcement personnel to respond to clandestine, drug laboratory sites safely and effectively. By forming this joint venture, the two companies bring their outstanding capabilities together for the benefit of their customers and the community.

About EM-Assist

Founded in 1996, EM-Assist provides program management and technical support in the areas of environmental management, e-learning, construction, and logistics. A nationally recognized company, EM-Assist's broad client list includes the Department of Defense, the International Olympic Committee and the Environmental Protection Agency. Their outstanding achievements resulted in numerous awards, including the Department of Defense, Nunn-Perry award. In 2004, Inc. Magazine added EM-Assist to their list of the top 500 fastest-growing, privately-owned companies in the country. For more information, visit