In the past year have you:
- Grown a beard to emulate your conservation idol Steve Koob?
- Participated in a juice cleanse which inspired a new pattern of healthy eating and daily lunchtime walks?
- Had a little work done ?
- Contracted Hepatitis B while doing archaeological site conservation in an exotic foreign location? (I sure hope not!)
If you answered yes to any of these questions then you are a candidate for a respirator fit test even you don’t work in a place where an annual test is required. Facial hair, weight loss or gain of 20lbs or more and any other changes in the shape of your face may mean that the respirator you have been wearing is no longer tight-fitting. Serious illness may compromise your respiratory and/or other systems making respirator use dangerous.
I trust that those reading this are already aware of the importance of protecting ourselves from the potentially harmful chemical compounds (vapors and particulates) and other irritants (such as mold) that we may be exposed to in the course of our work. Depending on the risk, such protection might be afforded in a variety of ways such as via the use of laboratory fume hood, appropriate room ventilation systems including workstation elephant trunk style air outlets, and/or personal protective equipment (PPE) such as a dust mask or respirator.
If you don’t work in a museum or other institution with a designated health and safety officer following OSHA required guidelines, you might be unclear about what kind of mask is required for a particular contaminant and even what “fit testing” means. Personally, never having been “fit tested” before, I will admit that for years I wasn’t even 100% clear whether it meant “are you fit (in proper health) to wear a respirator?” or “does the respirator fit?” Of course it means both! These days all you need do is consult the very informative AIC Health and Safety Committee Wiki to get your fill of information about respirators and so much more
As a conservator in private practice, I have no employer checking up on whether or not I am protecting myself. Several years ago I purchased a respirator, which seemed to fit well. While wearing it with the correct cartridges for the organic solvents I was working with, I figured “If I can’t smell the vapors it must be fine.” But I was never really sure that it fit and it is important to follow guidelines about the life of your cartridges to be sure you are getting adequate protection.
When I signed up for the respirator fit test, the AIC Health and Safety committee sent me the six-page OSHA Medical Evaluation Form (mostly check boxes with yes or no) to fill out and have signed by my doctor prior to fit testing. Keep this in mind if you plan to participate in fit testing at AIC next year – you must plan ahead and have this signed paperwork in hand or you will not be allowed to be tested! This form is available for download on the wiki.
The respirator fit testing consists of two steps, both of which fulfill the annual requirements mandated by OSHA. First, a brief Powerpoint, given by James R. Smith, Safety Coordinator at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, covered topics from the requirements of the Respiratory Protection Program (29CFR 1910.134) to hazards requiring a respirator, how to choose the correct respirator, care and maintenance, donning and doffing and training requirements for employers. The lecture was accompanied by handouts prepared by AIC Health and Safety and we were given a 10 question true or false quiz at the end.
I had scheduled my fit testing appointment prior to traveling to San Francisco. AIC Health and Safety asked participants to choose their top three time slots on the given date in order of preference. When I arrived, I noticed that there were still a couple of time slots available. I would highly recommend pre-registration for fit testing at AIC if you plan to do it next year because then you are guaranteed a spot.
The fit testing itself was quite simple. After donning my mask, James handed me a card with a poem to read while moving my head up and down, side to side and in a circular motion.
While I read this rainbow poem, he followed me with a little pen like device emitting an irritant smoke. I believe that the finale required bending at the waist. The test was brief and painless and I was relieved to hear that I had passed – particularly since I had already used the respirator on numerous projects. Once the test was over, James offered to prove to me that the respirator worked by allowing me to experience the irritant sans respirator. I declined saying that I trusted the test. However, he said that some people like to have proof and offered again. Somehow I took the bait and learned first hand that indeed, the gas is an irritant and my respirator is working properly.
Thank you to James, Kathryn A Makos, MPH, CIH (Industrial Hygienist (Ret.) Smithsonian Institution) and the rest of the AIC Health and Safety Committee for offering this service at the annual meeting.