Dust masks vs. respirators: is there a difference?

Have you ever referred to your respirator as a dust mask? A surprisingly amount of people use the words dust mask interchangeably with respirator, even though there are significant differences between the two. 

Differences between dust masks and respirators

Although a dust mask and respirator can often look similar, they actually have different purposes and protection levels. Typically, a dust mask has a single strap and has the same cup shape as a disposable respirator. However, dust masks can also come in the form of a loose fitting rectangular piece of material with an ear loop on each side, or straps to tie behind the head. Additionally, dust masks typically do not have any information printed on them. 
 
The most significant difference between dust masks and respirators is that dust masks aren’t NIOSH-approved disposable filtering facepieces. A common misconception is that dust masks protect the wearer from hazardous exposures, but in reality, they do not protect the wearer at all. Dust masks are designed to be used for one-way protection only – capturing large particles or droplets from the wearer and preventing them from being spread to their environment.
 
Dust masks should be worn when there is no risk of being exposed to hazardous dusts, gases or vapours. They are ideal for non-hazardous environments and are not considered to be a personal protective device that can provide respiratory protection to the wearer. They are intended to be used in non-regulated situations, such as when mowing grass.

Characteristics of NIOSH-approved respirators

All respirators designed to help protect the wearer from hazardous environments have been tested and certified by NIOSH. This includes air-purifying respirators (disposable, reusable and powered air) plus supplied air respiratory devices (airline or SCBA).  
Types of tests conducted by NIOSH include key performance criteria, such as filter efficiency, breathing resistance and if a disposable respirator has an exhalation valve, it’s tested for leakage.
 
Other characteristics of NIOSH-approved tight fitting particulate respirators, such as a disposable respirator, are as follows:

1. Designed to fit tightly – they have a seal around the wearer’s face which helps prevent air from leaking into the respirator, thus protecting the worker from particular hazards.

2. Approval levels are:

  • N – no oil present;
  • R – resistant to oil mist; or
  • P – oil mist proof

3. Have an efficiency of 95%, 99% or 99.9%

4. Require fit testing
  • Before initial use;
  • Every two years (according to CSA Standard Z94.4: Selection, use and care of respirators);
  • If the wearer fails their user seal check when they don a respirator; or
  • If there is a change to the wearer, such as weight loss or gain, changes in oral structure or piercings that interfere with the facial seal
5. Requires that a respiratory protection program be developed and implemented.
It includes:
  • Hazard identification and assessment
  • Roles and responsibilities
  • Selection of the appropriate respirator
  • Training
  • Health surveillance of respirator users 
  • Respirator fit testing
  • Cleaning, inspection, maintenance, and storage of respirators 
  • Program evaluation 
  • Recordkeeping 
Wondering how to choose the correct respirator for your application? Contact one of our reps today for help and more information. 

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