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Dust mask ratings

Every year, respiratory hazards cause over 10,000 UK deaths at workplaces and homes. Respiratory hazards such as dust, mists, metal fumes, gases, and vapours contribute to the worrying trend.


Dust masks, however, are a simple yet effective form of respiratory PPE that protects against the respiratory problems caused by these agents, including wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and more severe chronic conditions like mesothelioma and lung cancer.


A central element of PPE, dust masks is essential across a range of sectors and working environments. They work by protecting the respiratory system when working in environments with high dust levels, oil-based mists, and other airborne particles that could cause internal harm. There is a wide range of respiratory equipment, with each type suited to different workplaces or tasks.



How dust masks work

Dust masks and respirators have filters which can prevent you from breathing in harmful substances. Some masks are designed out of particles like wood and cement dust, while others protect against metal fumes and spray paint. 


Disposable or reusable

Some masks are disposable, and you can wear these masks until they cease to be effective before safely disposing of them. Other masks have changeable filters which you replace as necessary.


Surgical masks, for example, are only available in a disposable form, but most respirators are reusable. With respirators, it is also possible to replace their filter when it is full. 


Types of dust mask 

There are four main types of dust masks, with each suitable for different tasks.


Disposable respirators 

Disposable respirators fit over the nose and mouth. Their main function is to filter out small particles from the air you breathe. Particles include dust and germs (e.g. bacteria, mould, viruses). Disposable respirators do not include replacement parts and should be safely disposed of after use.


Half masks and full-face masks

Half masks and full-face masks provide reliable protection, with full-face masks providing eye protection in addition to respiratory protection.


Respiratory helmets

Built with a full respiration system into a protective piece of headwear.


Respiratory filters 

Respiratory filters allow you to replace your respirator’s filter, ensuring that a high level of dust protection is maintained.


Dust mask ratings 

Filtering Facepiece Respirators (FFP) consist of a facepiece and a filtering device. The filter type determines the level of protection offered, for example, FFP1 respirators are suitable for low-level dust and water-based mists, while FFP2s offer increased protection against moderate levels of dust, water-based mists and oil. FFP3 masks protect against high-level dust, biological agents, and asbestos removal. Respirators also protect wearers from inhaling infection agent droplets. 


Each of these categories is specific to the masks’ suitability for the Occupational Exposure Limit (OEL) and their Assumed Protection Factor (APF).


FFP1 dust masks

• P1 (shortened acronym) masks are recommended for workplaces with low levels of dust.

• They are suitable for jobs where cutting, drilling, and hand sanding is carried out.

• P1 protect users from liquid and solid aerosols.

• OEL: 4x.

• APF: 4x.


FFP2 dust masks 

• Offer higher level of protection that P1 masks.

• Like P1 masks, they protect against solid and liquid aerosols.

• Suited to workplaces with moderate dust levels.

• OEL: 12x.

• APF 10x.


FFP3 dust masks 

• Highest level of protection.

• Used in workplaces with high levels of dust.

• Suitable for workers who handle hazardous powders (e.g. pharmaceutical industry). 

• Also recommended in workplaces where hazard level is not known.

• OEL: 50x.

• APF: 20x.


It is essential to choose the right type of mask for the work you are undertaking to protect yourself adequately. If you work in an industry where you are required to wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), you should ensure your mask meets the appropriate standards.


How to select the right dust mask

Use the following four-step method to select the correct dust mask: 


• Identify the hazards – dust, gas, vapour, metal fumes. 

• Evaluate the hazard severity – what level of severity does the hazard pose? Which area will it affect? (e.g. skin, eye).

• Select the correct dust mask – disposable, half mask, full-face mask etc. 

• Training in fitting and use – Relevant training will optimise employees’ respiratory protection. 


Under current legislation, employers are responsible for providing suitable respiratory protection to employees who need it. This also includes the training in its use and maintenance. 


Dust mask considerations

You can meet the four-step criteria above by conducting a thorough COSHH risk assessment. Once you have established the containment exposure and airborne hazards in your workplace, you can select a dust mask based on its FFP rating. After choosing the correct mask according to its FFP rating, ensure it is comfortable and fits correctly. Also, be sure to check their OEL, as this indicates the mask’s maximum protection against dust. If in doubt, opt for masks with the highest OEL rating possible. Note, for work environments containing highly toxic particles (e.g. asbestos); it is best to select non-disposable masks that include sealing gaskets (i.e. full-face masks).


Maintenance and replacement of dust masks

It is crucial to select PPE that meets the local and international regulatory standards to protect your workers and comply with the law. Achieve this by establishing efficient maintenance and replacement procedures.  


Start by reinforcing non-disposable mask safety measures by implementing a daily cleaning schedule. Complement this with an RPE stock inventory, prioritising reorders as soon as supplies are low. Your system should be responsive and ensure that masks are replaced at the first sign of any wear and tear, or if they become uncomfortable to wear. Make sure your employees know how to report any faulty RPE/PPE.


Respiratory protection laws and regulations

Respirators which meet the European Standards requirements (EN149:2001) are designed to protect against solids, water-based aerosols, and oil-based products. RPE laws state that employers should conduct a thorough risk assessment before work commences in a hazardous environment. The respiratory protection regulations state that RPE should be worn when: 


• When implementing control measures.

• An inhalation exposure risk remains after the implementation of other controls.

• When conducting emergency work.

• During temporary periods when other controls and measures have failed.

• During short-term exposures to hazardous dust (when other means are impractical).

• Lastly, all RPE must be well maintained and stored in a designated area when not in use.


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