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Respirator and Dust Mask Safety

Although falling off a ladder or cutting yourself with a sharp tool are the most common boatyard injuries, the risks we face from the foul air we breathe is more insidious, which is why a respirator or filter mask is an essential part of any do-it-yourselfers toolkit. This year, the Centers for Disease Control is advocating a strategy to ensure an adequate supply of respirator masks for medical professionals in the event of a wider outbreak of 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nC0V).

A variety of the half-mask respirators, full-mask respirators and “dust” masks (like the 3M P95 particulate respirator) that are recommended as protection against the 2019 novel coronavirus are also used in other industries, including boat repair, and the CDC strategy is meant to ensure that immediate public health needs are prioritized.

The CDC’s strategy announcement is directed toward large-volume purchasing and supply managers in government, health care, and major industries. It is unlikely that relatively small population of individual DIY boaters who need masks will make a dimple in the supply chain. Nevertheless, it can’t hurt if we, also, support this coordinated effort by reducing our consumption of masks.

One way to reduce mask use is by substituting a potentially more harmful material that requires a mask for another that does not. For example, many marine coatings and treatments—such as water-based bottom paints—generally do not require a mask or filter of any sort. You can confirm safety requirements by referring to the Safety Data Sheet (SDS)—formerly referred to as the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS)—for the product you are using.

If you do intend to use a mask, the following offers some tips on proper care on use. For a more detailed look at what type of mask best suits your project–including a review of our highest rated full mask respirator–see our in-depth report on this topic The Best Respirators for the Boatyard.

Marine paints contain solvents that can make you dizzy at best or increase cancer risk at worst. Dust from sanding wood is usually only a nuisance, but sanding bottom paint or grinding fiberglass presents serious health risks. Fortunately, theres a wealth of industrial experience with contaminated air to draw upon, and by taking appropriate precautions, there is no reason working on the boat cant be as safe as walking down the street.

Chemical risks can be identified by reviewing the Safety Data Sheet (SDS)-formerly referred to as the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS)-for the cleaners, paints, solvents, and other hazardous materials you’ll be using. A Google search under the product name and safety data sheet should bring up the information you need. Review Section 3 (hazards identification), Section 5 (fire and explosion data), Section 8 (exposure controls/personal protection), and Section 11 (toxicological information). Specifically, Section 8 identifies the appropriate respirator cartridge type, although not the respirator classification, since that depends upon the expected concentration.

It is important to match the respirator cartridge with the chemical AND concentration. Vapors from some household cleaners and solvents can approach hazardous levels below decks. Active ventilation with fans and blowers can help reduce the risk.

Checking Fit

A respirator, vapor mask, or dust mask can’t protect you if it doesn’t fit your face. Its that simple. Anything that prevents a good seal-whether facial hair or a hollow under the side of your jaw-is unacceptable. In a workplace this fit test will be performed in a very rigid manner by a trained technician. However, for the sailor/occasional boat yard worker, we offer this shortcut procedure that is far better than nothing.

If you are farsighted, you can mount cheap reading glasses inside a full-face mask, such as the Scott AV-300, our top rated face mask.

Adjust the facemask to fit. Include any protective equipment you may wear, including goggles, eyeglasses, and hearing protection. Install organic vapor cartridges if applicable. Make sure any cartridge you use is certified by the relevant safety organization. In the U.S., this is the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Testing Safety Masks for Fit

The following test will work with partial, or with full face masks. Spray a fine mist of perfume into the air, so that it drifts down over your head. For a dust mask or particulate filter, a good dusting of black pepper or a spray of very salty water will also work. Now, grimace or smile broadly while repeating the alphabet for 15 seconds. Tilt your head up and down and rotate side to side while reciting. If you can smell the perfume, you failed the test. If the pepper made you sneeze or you taste pepper, you failed the test. Adjust the straps and start over.

Don’t assume the respirator model your dock mate swears by will fit you properly. Like shoes, its not just the size, its also the shape. Choose the one that fits you properly, and the pair it with the correct cartridge, as designated by. It will work.

If you have facial hair, full-face respirators can be more tolerant of mustaches than half-face respirators. Sometimes wetting the whiskers down with Vaseline helps. Trimming is the safest option.

Return any mask that does not pass this fit test. Worse than not functioning properly, it gives you false security.

Each time you use a cartridge-type mask, perform an inward leakage test. Remove or block the cartridges with tape, and try to inhale. It should suck to your face, with no leaks, and maintain the vacuum for at least a few seconds. This confirms you are wearing it properly and that it is not damaged. Adjust until it seals.

Clean after every use; if it isn’t clean, you might forego using it-at great risk. Don’t forget to order spare cartridges and parts before you need them.

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